V. S. Naipaul: A Bend in the River
Once again, this is a novel set in an unnamed African country, though it seems clearly to be based on Zaire, and its president, called the Big Man, is clearly based on Mobutu. The story is narrated by Salim, a Muslim Indian. His family had lived for along time on the coast but under pressure, Salim has been forced to move to the interior and has set up store in an old colonial town, possibly based on the former Stanleyville, now Kisangani. After initial difficulties, Salim gradually gets his business going as the town slowly starts to recover from the post-independence chaos. Much of the novel is about how Salim has to learn to understand the new Africa which is totally foreign to him. The Big Man runs everything through his army and through mercenaries, setting up the internecine killing that has typified Zaire and its successor. Salim is an observer and he observes the other people there. There is Pierre Huismans, the Belgian priest, who collects African artifacts. Early on Salim meets Zabeth, a woman from a village who comes to the town every month to buy items from Salim which she can sell in her village. Zabeth has a son, Ferdinand. As is African custom, he had spent much of his life with his father, a trader, but has now come back to his mother, and he is now aged around fifteen. His mother sends him to the lycée in the town and asks Salim to keep an eye on him. Ferdinand is already becoming a Zairean nationalist and will later become a government official and help Salim. We also meet Raymond, a Belgian who is employed by the Big Man to write propaganda for him but he is soon cast aside. Much of the novel is Salim’s observation of the changes in the country and the town as a result of the Big Man’s actions, which become more and more irrational, just as Mobutu’s did. Salim, of course, has no time for this new Africa and fails to understand it, for which he pays a price, losing his shop, his freedom and almost losing his life. In the end, Salim realises that he has no place in this country and he too must move on.
As an indictment of a post-independence African country, this really is a superb story, told as it is not by a dispassionate observer but, nevertheless, by an observer who is not a complete outsider, his family having been for some time in the country. As in his other novels, Naipaul is ready to shoot his barbs at both the blacks and whites who are not true to themselves and to their culture, whether it is the Big Man trying to emulate European leaders or Huismans, poking around in a past he does not really understand. One of his best.
First published by André Deutsch in 1979