Friday, 12 November 1999

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

Edition: Andre Deutsch, 1979
Review number: 388

Many parts of Africa in the seventies must have been bewildering, terrifying places to live. The driving forces for instability were very strong, based partly on the conflicting feelings of the recently independent nations towards the former colonial powers: hatred of what they had stood for, jealousy of their wealth, and a desperate desire to be as "advanced". The need for the West to provide the status symbols the new nations desperately wanted combined with hatred for those who provided them, together with corruption on a vast scale caused massive instability socially and economically, as the influence of foreign corporations fought the new feelings of nationalism.

Naipaul dramatises this conflict through the story of Salim, a member of one of the trading families of Arab descent from Africa's east coast. When nationalism in his home country destroys the family business, he travels into the interior of the continent to an unnamed town on a bend of an unnamed river flowing through an unnamed country. There, he takes over one of the businesses of a family friend, the man whose daughter everyone expects him to eventually marry.

Through Salim, Naipaul has a character who is both an insider and an outsider: African rather than European, yet still foreign. This means he can be more involved in African society than any European, yet still observe it from the outside. He can stand back from anti-colonial antagonism and also sympathise with it.

With this carefully chosen central character, Napaul tries to convey something of what Africa was like in the mid seventies (the book being written at the end of that decade). He manages to show the reader the Africa behind the corrupt politics, the self-glorifying dictators, the poverty that are the common images of the continent.

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