V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the RiverSpencer J. Quinn
V. S. Naipaul was a prolific Indian writer from the West Indies who remains of interest to dissidents today largely due to the respect he afforded Western Civilization, as well as his often insightful race realism. Both qualities appear starkly in his 1979 novel, A Bend in the River.
The story takes place in an unnamed town in an unnamed country in post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa, and focuses on the thoughtful yet unambitious Salim, an ethnically Indian Muslim shopkeeper. The town is located at a bend in the river (also unnamed), which makes it an ideal place for trading. When Salim arrives from his family’s settlement on the east coast, the place is a decrepit remnant of a former European suburb, and it is up to him and a handful of Indian and European merchants to revitalize its economy.
The buildings, lamp standards, and tree-lined avenues from the colonial period remain, but the cathedrals, statues, and other European creations lay defaced and in shambles. At the base of a ruined monument, a Latin line from the Aeneid reads: Miscerique probat populos at foedera jungi, which is later translated as “He approves of the mingling of the peoples and their bonds of union.” In this case, the “he” refers to the Roman god Jupiter — but this is a mangled translation, Salim tells us: “. . . three words were altered to reverse the meaning.”
Above all else, A Bend in the River is a fictional testament to the dysfunction of African societies when they try to emulate European ones, as well as the sheer hopelessness of multiracialism in such societies. Blacks in this novel have a hard enough time keeping the peace amongst their own tribes, to say nothing of non-blacks. People like Salim can only be considered foreigners or interlopers, and their African births and manifest value to their communities ultimately amount to nothing. As frank and pessimistic as it is regarding black Africans’ prospects after independence, it’s astonishing the A Bend in the River received any positive notice in the Western press at all. But, despite some rumblings, it did.
Shortly after arriving, Salim is joined by his family’s half-caste slave Ali, who soon goes by the name of Metty (from the French métis, meaning one of mixed race). Metty is traumatized after witnessing the atrocities the liberated blacks had committed against his and Salim’s families back on the coast and had escaped just in time. He now clings to Salim for protection and is soon working in Salim’s shop.
From this point, Naipaul merely chronicles Salim’s life in black Africa. There’s a rebellion. It gets crushed. A new President with modern ideas gains power in the capital. Business improves. Times are good. The President (called “the Big Man”) build a polytechnic institute near the town. Portraits of him are everywhere. He cracks down on an underground “Liberation Army” that wishes to return to the ways of their ancestors. As unrest and violence increase, corruption does as well. Salim takes part in the illegal trade in gold and ivory. The Big Man ultimately nationalizes all foreign-owned businesses. Salim becomes an employee in his own shop, having been replaced by a lazy and incompetent black. He’s arrested and then saved at the last minute by a government connection. He boards the last steamer out of the country and escapes.
I gave away the entire plot of A Bend in the River because, as far as novels go, it’s not very good. It’s more important that modern dissidents merely know about this novel rather than read it themselves. Based on this and the only other book of Naipaul’s I have read, A House for Mr. Biswas, it seems the author lacks any profound storytelling instincts. Salim doesn’t act in any decisive way, and so does not contribute much to the plot. He merely floats like jetsam along the currents of history — and the history may be interesting, but that doesn’t necessarily make A Bend in the River so. As a result, there is little action, little suspense, and little in the narrative to keep the reader interested in continuing to read. The characters are flat and unremarkable. We have little invested in them, because they don’t do enough to deserve any investment to begin with. Often, the things they do are inexplicable as well. Subplots meander and are then dropped without resolution. There is no conclusion at the end, merely a stopping point.
What A Bend in the River does have going for it, however, other than Naipaul’s readable prose and gift for imagery, is the author’s ruthless insights — especially those dealing with race — and his utter disregard for cultural Marxism, and these can be appreciated entirely out of the context of the story itself. Here are a few examples.
In my family’s compound there were two slave families, and they had been there for at least three generations. The last thing they wanted to hear was that they had to go. Officially, these people were only servants. But they wanted it known — to other Africans, and to poor Arabs and Indians — that they were really slaves. It wasn’t that they were proud of slavery as a condition; what they were fierce about was their special connection with a family of repute. They could be very rough with people they considered smaller fry than the family.
On the accomplishments of white people:
Of that whole period of upheaval in Africa — the expulsion of the Arabs, the expansion of Europe, the parcelling out of the continent — that is the only family story I have. That was the sort of people we were. All that I know of our history and the history of the Indian Ocean I have got from books written by Europeans. If I say that our Arabs in their time were great adventurers and writers; that our sailors gave the Mediterranean the lateen sail that made the discovery of the Americas possible; that an Indian pilot led Vasco da Gama from East Africa to Calicut; that the very word cheque was first used by our Persian merchants — if I say these things it is because I have got them from European books. Without Europeans, I feel, all our past would have been washed away, like the scuff marks of fishermen on the beach outside of town.
On colonialism (wherein Naipaul describes how Zabeth, a local trader and sorceress, first met the father of her child):
The boy’s father was a trader. As a trader, he had travelled about the country during the miraculous peace of the colonial time, when men could, if they wished, pay little attention to tribal boundaries. That was how, during his travels, he and Zabeth had met; it was from this trader that Zabeth had picked up her trading skills. At independence, tribal boundaries had become important again, and travel was not as safe as it had been.
On the promiscuity of Africans:
About women, the attitude was just as matter-of-fact. Shortly after I arrived, my friend Mahesh told me that women slept with men whenever they were asked; a man could knock on any woman’s door and sleep with her. . . . To Mahesh the sexual casualness was part of the chaos of corruption of the place.
On feeling inferior to whites:
They! When we wanted to speak politically, when we wanted to abuse or praise politically, we said “the Americans,” “the Europeans,” “the white people,” “the Belgians.” When we wanted to speak of the doers and makers and the inventors, we all — whatever our race — said “they.” We separated these men from their groups and countries and in this way attached them to ourselves. “They’re making cars that will run on water.” “They’re making television sets as small as a matchbox.” The “they” we spoke of in this way were very far away, so far away as to be hardly white. They were impartial, up in the clouds, like good gods.
On the violence of Africans:
I knew other things about the forest kingdom, though. I knew that the slave people were in revolt and were being butchered back into submission. But Africa was big. The bush muffled the sound of murder, and the muddy rivers and lakes washed the blood away.
On the predatory nature of Africans:
Shortly after I had arrived Mahesh had said to me of the local Africans: “You must never forget, Salim, that they are malins.” He had used the French word, because the English words he might have used — “wicked,” “mischievous,” “bad-minded” — were not right. The people here were malins the way a dog chasing a lizard was malin, or a cat chasing a bird. The people were malins because they lived with the knowledge of men as prey.
The first half of the novel is filled with insights such as these, and for a while, before the bankruptcy of the characters and narrative reveals itself, it seems as if we’re reading a reactionary masterpiece. Naipaul is a consummately gifted observer and reporter. He’s not afraid of the truth, nor does he have an ideological axe to grind. Salim describes how seeing a British colonial postage stamp showing a humble dhow changed how he viewed the world, because it taught him that certain things are simply worth viewing and thus have meaning. After a white priest with an unquenchable passion for Africa is murdered in the bush, Salim laments how the man’s extensive collection of African masks and carvings no longer has meaning. Quite a few observations in A Bend in the River sparkle like these.
Most striking, however, is Naipaul’s depiction of Africans. Although he is not shy when portraying their stupidity, corruptibility, and violence, the one feature they all have in common in A Bend in the River is pretentiousness. It seems almost everything they do is for show. Zabeth’s simpleminded boy, mentioned above, is constantly putting on various civilized airs while he is a student, and later, when he is a cadet. African employees at restaurants and bars slack off on the job and hop to it only when the boss is watching. An African bellhop makes extravagant promises of service only to forget about his patrons once he receives a tip. The lazy and incompetent African who is installed as Salim’s boss towards the end of the story has Salim drive him around town like a chauffer to make himself seem like an important man.
The one exception to this pretentiousness, however, underscores Naipaul’s obtuseness as a novelist. Perhaps the most fascinating character in the whole novel is the aforementioned Zabeth, a canny, copper-skinned trader and sorceress who has a preternatural understanding of the market and can haggle better than anyone. She’s entirely illiterate, yet can keep prices and figures in her head indefinitely. She also speaks in riddles and wears perfume designed to repel rather than attract. Later, Salim hears about how, when a rampaging rebel army was looking for whites to kill, she overawed them with her charms and saved the whites.
She is a great character. The story scintillates whenever she shows up, yet Naipaul inexplicably drops her and all but forgets about her a third of the way into the novel.
The most remarkable aspect of A Bend in the River, however, is all meta. This novel demonstrates the astonishing anti-white double standard of our literary class, both then and now. The main character is a slave owner who defends slavery. He says nothing but negative things about black Africans, and reports only the worst about black independence. Most damningly, he admires white people and white civilization, and remembers the colonial period fondly.
Great Caesar’s bleeding hemorrhoids, what more does an author have to do to antagonize our Leftist overlords than that?
If V. S. Naipaul had been white, he would have been called a Nazi and a racist before being tarred and feathered on the rail car which would have unceremoniously driven him and his entire family away from polite society for the next 17 generations. But because he wasn’t white, he gets the benefit of the doubt. Critics raved about A Bend in the River and put it on their short list of works in consideration for the 1979 Booker Prize. In 1998, the Modern Library placed it as the 83rd greatest English-language novel of the twentieth century. Naipaul was knighted in 1991, and bagged the Nobel Prize in Literature ten years later.
Yeah, we can savor the irony. Better, however, would be to claim A Bend in the River for the Dissident Right today and get that racist Nazi V. S. Naipaul posthumously cancelled by the woke twitterati crowd. Maybe then the insightful race-realism of this flawed yet interesting novel will reach the wide audience it so richly deserves.
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“The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
This opening to A Bend in the River is, I think, one of the finest openings to any novel I’ve read, and I was transfixed by the book when I first read it in 1979. Naipaul wrote a probing study of Indian merchants brought to Africa, first by the Arab commerce, then by the British and other colonial powers, and now are at the mercy of the new government.
The hero, a merchant trying to survive under this world, is also seduced by the west, especially by Yvette, the wife of Raymond, a second-rate scholar who has the ear of The Big Man, the ruler of this country. But it’s simply not a polemic. Naipaul captures the struggle of modern man adrift, and uses many third world characters to demonstrate this angst in plain, harsh prose full of honesty. The novel made me a devoted Naipaul reader, and my review of Shiva Naipaul’s Journey to Nowhere is very much in Naipaul’s vein
As I pointed out, Naipaul was admired by many on the right because he could say things about blacks and the third world whites couldn’t dare say.
Naipaul based much of his research on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and it is assumed Zaire is the model for this fictional land of the Big Man and a vivd cast of characters.
The London scenes are also very good, and shows the West’s decline and how it remains an irresistible magnet to races of people who will kill it, but can’t give it up.
Naipaul’s sentences are harsh and good, literary tonic. I envy the strength of his plain tone, and how it says so much. Yet, I always identified with Naipaul’s characters. They didn’t seem like aliens. They were extensions of my own angst and development at that time.
Thank you for this. Would you recommend any of Naipaul’s nonfiction?
Naipaul is a prolific journalist as well as fiction writer. some books I have read and recommended are:
The Middle Passage
The Loss of El Dorado (a study of slavery in the Caribbean)
India: A Wounded Civilization (Naipaul’s astute views of India’s self-delusions)
The Return of Eva Peron and the Killings in Trinidad (views on Latin America and black nationalism’s bogus claims)
Among the Believers (Naipaul’s visit to Iran after the 1979 revolution in Iran)
A Trun in the South (Naipaul’s visit to the American South, where he considered it similar to the Caribbean, and white/black relations very benign)
Thanks for this review. Naipaul’s tutelage of budding author Paul Theroux in the African bush (before this novel was written) is an interesting chapter. Theroux went on to become one of the most famous travel writers, and though I find his leftist tendencies obnoxious and naive he also honestly portrays what he encounters abroad and it appears Naipaul’s politically incorrect attitudes rubbed off on young Paul as well. In “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”, Theroux’s book detailing his friendship with Naipaul over the decades, he recounts how Naipaul observes how the African students at the local university don’t follow the paved paths on campus. They cut across the lawns and form their own footpaths through the grass. And isn’t that how it goes, they will create their own ways regardless of the quality of the alternatives offered. Theroux goes on to observe in his own Africa travel books that the NGOs and foreign meddlers only serve to worsen the situation for the locals. Only Africans can solve African problems. And though he doesn’t say so, the corollary to this is clearly that only whites can solve white problems.
Wow. Thank you for this. I had no idea about Theroux and Naipaul. But I can see the connection. You might like to know that there is an excellent review of Theroux’s Last Train to Zona Verde in Amren’s A Dissident’s Guide to Blacks and Africa. I reviewed Theroux’s Mosquito Coast for CC in 2018, and will get around to his Girls at Play one of these days.
The best novel I have read about Africa however remains Robert Ruark’s Uhuru.
Theroux’s Dark Star Safari was also surprisingly racially sound.
I look forward to reading your review (once open to the public), as, whether I’m to be believed or not, I had been considering A Bend in the River as a novel that I myself might want to review for CC. Probably an idle fancy, but, anyway, Naipaul is a good one. My favorite among his works remains A House for Mr. Biswas, but that for strictly personal reasons.
As you seem to like reviewing literature, especially with political or racial angles, might I suggest Greene, The Comedians? This novel, famously set in Haiti (at a time, I believe, when Haiti was barely on the map of Western literary interest), has possibly the best sympathetic but not fawning, brief portrayal of a true, sincere American liberal (not frothing progressive, though the former paved the road for the latter) that I’ve ever encountered. Plus, like most of Greene’s novels, it’s an enthralling read (even if less about Haiti per se than the struggles of a white man ‘marooned’ there).
How did I ever miss your review of Uhuru just this past September? Things move fast here. Thanks for recalling it, and the novel. I’d never heard of Ruark or Uhuru. That Arundel Leakey story is terrifying and emblematic:
Arundel Gray Leakey, cousin to the more famous Louis Leakey, and known as ‘Morungaru’ was a white settler farmer in Central Province. …
In October 1954, … Leakey’s home was attacked by 60+ Mau Mau freedom fighters who killed his wife and force marched him to the Mount Kenya forest. Almost all available accounts of his murder indicate that he was buried alive after being tortured and disemboweled. The murder was reportedly sanctioned as a human sacrifice to appease the spirits, but embarrassed the colonial government and forced it to look for a scapegoat.
Another African piece of journalism the readers might like is Shiva Naipaul’s North of South. Naipaul’s brother wrote a pretty scathing but honest view of modern Africa.
I also liked an earlier book, Congo Kitabu, written by Jean Claude Hallet (?), a Belgian who talks about his life in late fifties Congo. Again, his views on Africans were sympathetic, but he thought giving them their own country was a disaster. He also challenged the popular views of colonial brutality in the Congo, but also thought Africans did very well in the jungle and village life. He thought city life was too much for them, and a lot of ideas of ‘liberation’ were too much for them to absorb, and they were easily duped.
As for Greene’s The Comedians, George Orwell wrote a scathing review of Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, in that it was set in West Africa but was almost exclusively about British civil servants and their foibles. Also, Orwell thought Greene spent too much time dwelling on, as he called it, sanctified sinners. He believed that Catholic writers liked showing failed priests, but with that Catholics retained their superiority that they alone knew the meaning of good and evil. In The Heart of the Matter, Orwell noted how Greene assumed no one outside of the Catholic Church had the slightest knowledge of Christian
Like Lord Shang, I thought about writing a review for A Bend in the River, but had other things going, and now can say “Whew! Don’t have to do that one.”
I’m glad to see other people appreciate Naipaul’s work.
I have a little book by Naipaul. I think it has a peacock on the cover.
I meant to say this article was really interesting and informative. That was implicit in what I said.
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