Given it’s V.S. Naipaul’s birthday today, we’ve dug out from the archives a 1979 Spectator review by Richard West of A Bend In The River. Don’t forget that the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize, named after his younger brother, is currently open for entries.
One of the dark places
The protagonist and narrator of this book is a young man named Salim from the east coast of Africa; a Muslim Indian by origin but not from one of the families of the men who came to build the railways. Like the Arabs of old Zanzibar and what is now Tanzania, Salim’s ancestors had once traded in ivory and slaves from the interior of the continent: ‘I remember hearing from my grandfather that he had once shipped a boatful of slaves as a cargo of rubber.
‘Most of these slaves came from the huge territory drained by the Congo river which flows for much of its course northwards and then turns west, passing over two cataracts, to reach the Atlantic which it discolours for 20 miles from the shore. The Congo, now named Zaire, was always regarded by Europeans as baleful and frightening. It was here that Livingstone saw the Arab slavers slaughter African villages. The explorer Stanley crossed the territory three times, first on behalf of a newspaper and then for King Leopold of the Belgians who had made the Congo into his private Free State. The Europeans who took the Congo with the excuse of saving Africans from the slave trade, soon introduced a regime of comparable cruelty to obtain wild rubber and ivory.
When the Belgians granted independence in 1960, tribal warfare and pillage swept over the Congo, especially affecting the region round Stanleyville, which lies on a bend in the river and must be the site for Naipaul’s book. Most of the foreigners have fled but Nazruddin. another east coast Indian, has hung on to his property and his store: ‘A businessman isn’t a mathematician. A businessman is someone who buys at ten and is happy to get out at twelve.’ He offers the management of the shop to Salim at two. ‘In three or four years it will climb up to six. Business never dies in Africa.
‘Our town, as Salim calls it, is desolate when the narrative opens, sometime in the early Sixties: ‘The steamer monument had been knocked down. With all the other colonial statues and monuments. Pedestals had been defaced, protective railings flattened, floodlights smashed and left to rust. . . But more unnerving than anything else was the ruined suburb near the rapids. Valuable real estate for a while, and now bush again,common ground, according to African practice. The houses had been set alight one by one. They had been stripped — before or afterwards — only of those things that the local people needed — sheets of tin, lengths of pipe, bath tubs and sinks and lavatory bowls (impermeable vessels, useful for soaking cassava in).
There are few Europeans or Asians in ‘our town’ at the bend in the river, and Salim’s feeling of loneliness is increased by the news of a rising on the coast against the Arabs: this was the Tanzanian mutiny of 1962. One of the family servants is sent up country to help Salim with the store.
Then things improve. The villagers drift back to the township, the lycee re-opens and more steamers arrive bringing prostitutes, commercial travellers, and troops. There are still rumours of war but the President despatches a squad of white mercenaries to shoot the rebellious colonel, and jet planes to strafe the bush. When the war recedes, a boom begins and Salim’s friend Mahesh gets the concession for BigburgersAldephonse, the house-boy was taken from the flat and given a Bigburger chef’s cap and a yellow Bigburger jacket and put behind the counter.’ The business that Salim bought at two has climbed up to four.
The President builds a new town or ‘domain’ on the site of what had been a European suburb. The larger buildings are startling — ‘concrete louvres, pierced concrete blocks of great size, tinted glass’. The residents of ‘our town’ like Salim are not quite clear at first exactly what purpose is served by the domain which turns out to be a kind of pareuniversity of African studies. Among its notables is an elderly French academic called Raymond who had befriended the President years before independence and now is revered as the leading historian of the country. Salim thinks Raymond’s writing is trash; he also goes to bed with Raymond’s young wife.
The boom evaporates; the domain is abandoned, and civil war returns to this area round a bend in the river. Salim tries to escape to London, which he finds uncomfortable: full of Arabs,some of them with their slaves in attendance. He goes back to ‘our town’ to find that his store has been nationalised and given into the management of an African. He turns to smuggling ivory, is betrayed, arrested and gets out of the country just before a further eruption of civil war. He leaves on the steamer: ‘Soon we were moving through real forest. Every now and then we passed a village and market dugouts poled out to meet us. It was like that all through the heavy afternoon.’
At night, the boat is attacked by young men with guns. ‘The steamer started up again and moved without lights down the river, away from the area of battle. The air would have been full of moths and flying insects, the searchlight, while it was on, had shown thousands, white in the white light.’ These are the closing words of A Bend in the River.
The very good jacket illustration by Tony Moore shows a steamer moving along this river into the centre of Africa, emphasising the resemblance between this novel and Conrad’s immortal story Heart of Darkness, which was based on the experience of a voyage up the Congo to Stanleyville, now ‘our town’. Devotees of Conrad will be able to spot all kinds of hints or references in Naipaul’s novel, quite apart from the atmosphere of brooding horror. The central character of Heart of Darkness, Kurtz, has gone to the Congo, like Raymond, to bring enlightenment, and ends like Salim dealing in stolen ivory. The steamer is attacked from the shore. The Africans are portrayed as shadowy, frightened people, always prepared to take flight into the bush. In Conrad’s book the blacks were terrorised by Belgian slave-drivers; in Naipaul’s by beerswilling mercenaries. In Heart of Darkness, a warship shells the bush: ‘There she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.’
In A Bend in the River: ‘A jet fighter flying low — so low that you can clearly see its triangular silver underside, is a killing thing. . .It made a few more passes over the town, that one plane, like a vicious bird that wouldn’t go away. Then it flew over the bush. At last it lifted, and just a little while later, at some distance, the missiles it had released exploded in the bush.’
Like Conrad, Naipaul sets some of his Congo novel in London and makes a comparison of the two rivers there. Conrad wanted to make the point that England too was once ‘one of the dark places of the earth’, colonised by the Romans; it might once again go back to Congo savagery. And Naipaul rubs in the lesson that London has now been prostituted and purchased by just those Arabs who only 100 years ago ransacked the Congo for slaves and ivory. Like Conrad, Naipaul has gone to the Congo to express the depth of his pessimism about the human condition.
A Bend in the River is more than a true and powerful book about Africa. It is, like Heart of Darkness, one of those books that make you question many assumptions about the world today. Perhaps because of his upbringing as an Asian in the West Indies, Naipaul is conscious of how thin the fabric of civilisation is, not just in a country such as Zaire but in India or England. He is always aware that we from the old civilisations, as well as the Congolese Africans, are ‘only just down from the trees’, to borrow the old jibe of the whites.
Although this novel will greatly offend the white liberal ‘friends of Africa’, the kind of people who now admire the avaricious murderers of the ‘Patriotic Front’, Naipaul is not, I think, hostile to Africans. There is none of the rage and scorn that he clearly feels for some negro West Indians and their white friends, so brutally caricatured in his last novel Guerrillas. The young African lycee student in A Bend in the River turns out to be pathetic rather than villainous as some sort of official in ‘our town’. He helps Salim to safety, knowing that he himself is doomed; ‘We’re all going to hell, and every man knows this in his bones. We’re being killed. Nothing has any meaning’. It is the same cry that composed the last words of Kurtz: ‘The horror! The horror!’
A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul.