Book Of A Life­time: A Bend in The River, By V. S. Naipaul

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Neel Mukher­jee

ABend in the River’ was pub­lished when Naipaul was nearly 50. One of the great­est nov­els about the process of “be­com­ing” (as op­posed to “be­ing”) a na­tion, es­pe­cially af­ter the colonis­ing pow­ers have de­parted, it is tense with a taut hy­per­aware­ness and knowl­edge of ev­ery nu­ance, sub­text, con­text and his­tory of the var­i­ous mix of peo­ples in the un­named Cen­tral African country where the book is lo­cated. Indwellers; as­sim­i­lated and semi-as­sim­i­lated Arab traders; erst­while slave classes now racially in­ter­min­gled with the Arabs who used to own them; the bush or vil­lage Africans; Euro­peans; the di­as­poric peo­ples of the In­dian Ocean (to which our first-per­son nar­ra­tor, Salim, be­longs); vis­i­tors; ex­pa­tri­ates . . . ‘White Teeth’ wasn’t quite the first mul­ti­cul­tural novel.

“Af­ter all, we make our­selves ac­cord­ing to the ideas we have of our pos­si­bil­i­ties,” re­marks Salim. Each time I come to ‘A Bend in the River’, I seem to read a new book. At times, it is a book about the ten­sion be­tween be­ing and be­com­ing, played out on the bass and tre­ble clefs of the in­di­vid­ual and the global; at oth­ers, about the silent, pa­tient rage of his­tory; about how free, if at all, one can be of his­tory and its bur­dens.

It is, ul­ti­mately, a med­i­ta­tion about the genre that sub­sumes all oth­ers, his­tory, of which we are sub­jects and to which we are sub­jected (to para­phrase Fou­cault). It is wholly in ac­cord with the book that the two great his­to­ri­ans of em­pire, Gib­bon and Momm­sen, should merit mul­ti­ple ref­er­ences. The prose is pared down, un­ob­tru­sive, and the de­cep­tively sim­ple sen­tences can wield a sur­gi­cal knife at the flick of a comma.

The struc­ture of the book – mov­ing from the pe­riph­eries to the cen­tre, ge­o­graph­i­cally and metaphor­i­cally – re­minds me of Cocteau’s words, “Un homme pro­fond ne monte pas, ils’ en­fonce” (“a pro­found per­son does not rise, he goes deeper”). The pro­fun­dity of the novel lies ex­actly in this depth of en­quiry into the big­gest ques­tion: what is one’s place in the world and how does one fit into it? Any other novel ask­ing th­ese ques­tions would likely spin them into “around-the­house-and-in-the-yard” tales of love and re­demp­tion. Naipaul uses them to achieve noth­ing short of an ar­chae­ol­ogy of the des­tiny of na­tions and peo­ples.

No one has parsed with such nu­ance and fe­ro­cious clar­ity the im­plo­sion of a na­tion, the com­plex web of causes be­hind it and the groups of peo­ples caught up in that seis­mic un­rav­el­ling. He has shown us harsh, in­tractable truths, which have not agreed with the ide­olo­gies of the lib­eral-rel­a­tivists and the po­lit­i­cally cor­rect po­lice force of the post-colo­nial in­dus­try. Their fash­ion­able rage against him is, to para­phrase an­other writer, the rage of Cal­iban look­ing at his face in the mir­ror. His­tory has proved Naipaul right so far. He taught two gen­er­a­tions of writ­ers not just how to write – that any care­ful crafts­man can teach you – but also, more cru­cially and rarely, how to look un­flinch­ingly at things and not turn one’s gaze away.

Neel Mukher­jee is the author of ‘A Life Apart’ (Cor­sair) and a judge for this year’s In­de­pen­dent For­eign Fic­tion Prize

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