I read in several obituaries that Bend in the River (1979) was V. S. Naipaul’s (1932-2018) masterpiece. It has been gathering dust on a bookcase of unread books for nearly three decades. I was not engaged by the beginning, and was never very interested in the narrator, an unobservant Muslim of South Asian ancestry who grew up on the east coast of Africa and settled as a storekeeper in the middle (not Uganda, seemingly Mobutu’s Congo/Zaire). Salim has opinions about many matters, but the book seems more a set of mini-essays than a novel. It has Naipaul’s misogyny and cruelty to women, his contempt for Africans, though not developing his hatred for Islam and contempt for South Asians.
I don’t think the book idealizes European colonialism, though painting a gloomy picture of a post-independence cult of a ruler who can only be toppled by violent civil war (that is likely to wear a tribalist mask). The corruption of the 1970s is not counterpoised to a golden age of Belgian colonialism, though invidiously contrasted to urbane London. (He does note that East African slavery both predated and postdates the colonial era, which is true.)
Naipaul was not much of a storyteller and none of the characters with the partial exception of the academic sycophant of the Big Man, Raymond, strikes me as a somewhat developed (hardly rounded) character. I was mildly amused by the burger franchise, imported lock, stock, and barrel from the West (though the beef is local), but did not believe in Yvette (Raymond’s wife who has a protracted affair with Salim) or the other characters, including the other alien (non-African) merchants.
(Naipual in 2016, photo by
I think I’ve read eight Naipaul novels, though none during this millennium, plus The Search for Eldorado and various pieces published in the New York Review of Books. He is loathed by the Afro-Caribbeans I know, but if this was his best, I don’t think he was a great writer. I don’t want to risk rereading his early books set in Trinidad and finding that I no longer like them either,
Bend in the River was a Booker Prize finalist (he’d won for In a Free State in 1971) was on the Guardian’s (Robert McCrum’s) 2015 list of 100 best novels in English, on the Guardian’s best novels of all times, and Naipaul was awarded a Nobel Prize in literature in 2001.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray