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Monday, December 12, 2016

A Bend in the River (1979) by V. S. Naipaul


Book Review
A Bend in the River (1979)
by V. S. Naipaul

  V.S. Naipaul won the Booker Prize in 1971, and forty years later he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.   That is the modern world double in literature and with it comes assured status as a statesperson of world literature, not just English language literature.  His work sits at the intersection of broad trends in literature past and present, an heir to Conrad and an avatar for the globalization of English language literature at the very same time.   A Bend in the River did not win the Booker Prize, but when the committee awarded Naipaul the Nobel Prize for Literature and singled him out as an heir to Conrad, A Bend in the River seemed to be the book they were talking about.  At least, the publisher of this copy of A Bend in the River would have you believe that, since they splash that quote from the Award Ceremony on the back cover.

  A Bend in the River is set in a thinly veiled Eastern Congolese city during the era of Mobutu.  The narrator is Salim, the son of a moderately well to-do Muslim Indian trading family living on the coast in what is today southern Kenya or northern Tanzania.  African independence hits their community hard, and Salim takes up an offer to run a trading depot in a moribund central African township, recently despoiled by the paroxysm accompanying independence.   The cast of characters include his "slave," who has made the decision to accompany him up river for lack of anything better to do, Ferdinand, the child of a trader from an up river village, and Yvette, the white, European wife of exiled Presidential advisor Raymond.

  The events of A Bend in the River in a manner familiar to students of the history of Zaire/the Congo, initial progress under the dictator is reversed  over time, and eventually all are left worse than they were before.  It's no wonder that this book received criticism from the left for being an apology for neo-colonialism, but since Naipaul seems to be right about everything he said in A Bend in the River, as things turned out,  it appears that it would be the Nobel Prize Committee who had the last word.

  As a fan of Conrad and Conradian fiction, it is easy to see the comparison, and makes sense to call Naipaul a worthy heir to Conrad's achievements.  After all, Conrad famously wrote in his third language (English) and his anglicized name disguised but did not erase his Polish heritage.  Conrad was a global author before such a thing existed.

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