Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Bend in the River - V. S. Naipaul

To be among the ruins was to have your time-sense unsettled. You felt like a ghost, not from the past, but from the future. You felt that your life and ambition had already been lived out for you and you were looking at the relics of that life. You were in a place where the future had come and gone.

How do I even begin to describe my reading experience with Naipaul? His snide views on female writers and absolute jerk-like behaviour towards women in general (among many other things) had always given me second thoughts while picking up his books. But as compelled as one may feel to boycott his work, his Nobel-endorsed literary merit infuriatingly works in his favour! Which is why I finally relented and ended up reading A Bend in the River: a bleak and hard-hitting commentary about the uprooting effects of colonization in post-colonial Africa. The narrator is Salim, a merchant of Indian origin who migrates from Africa's coast to a recently freed bush country in its interior, to take over a small shop in an unnamed town by the bend of a river (widely believed to be Kisangani by the Congo river, based on geographical markers).

As an outsider whose fate and fortunes are now tied to the country, Salim partakes in all its sudden phases of growth as well as political turmoil and upheavals, while being emotionally uninvested in the reasons behind these changes. That makes him a unique and interesting observer who sees things for what they are, whether it is the burgeoning construction of government buildings - that remain largely unoccupied - to show-off the country's "prosperity", or fancy schools for young men where propaganda is fed, or hurtful policies of the authoritarian military president (referred to as "Big Man", who takes after Zaire's Mobutu), whose wishes to reclaim Africa's cultural identity by shunning all things foreign eventually affect the country - and Salim's business.

A Bend makes it abundantly clear why Naipaul is so revered despite his horrid conduct. The prose is alarmingly direct and crisp, making for a super-engaging read. I was surprised to find myself reading it everywhere I went like a dork, including coffee shops and public buses and even my office lounge at lunchtime - noisy places that I never thought were conducive to serious reading! And that went on despite frequent passages without dialog that provide a continual reflection of Salim's thoughts and observations of current events. In fact, it is these very stream-of-consciousness style passages that form the soul of the narrative, giving center stage to all the confusion and belligerence of a new country instead of relegating them to the plot's backdrop.

But it may be that a little of Naipaul's persona has crept into A Bend, adding occasional bouts of condescension, vanity and sexism, which were aggravating to read. Towards the end, I had lost all pity for Salim, who become more and more degenerate as the situation got worse. You'd expect even an anti-hero to find a semblance of purpose or betterment of circumstances, but trust Naipaul to deny even a sliver of optimism to the reader! And as much as this is a perfectly crafted book, its biggest fault is that while it revolves around Africa, the African has been ignored for the most part or reduced to a helpless cardboard cut out. I believe there is abundant room for a local's point of view even in an outsider's tale, which A Bend misses out on, making one wonder what the other side of the story is.

Or maybe that is the whole point.

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