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Breath Taking Honesty,
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This review is from: A Bend in the River (Paperback)
I must say that I regret that it took me a long time to discover the significance of A Bend in the River. Its significance was brought to my attention by the recent publicity surrounding a biography of V S Naipaul. As I began reading the novel, it immediately stuck a cord with me. Naipaul's opening sentence must be one of the most stunning first sentences of the literary novel. Its assertion creates a sense that one has embarked upon the reading of a great philosophical treatise. I was immediately engaged.
Our first person narrator and main character, Salim, takes over a shop somewhere in central Africa in a state of post rebellion. He is restless and trying to escape his former life on the east coast of Africa. Salim narrates his struggle for personal change against a backdrop of an array of characters who undertake their own personal journey of survival and change in the context of an emerging state that vacillates between the promise of success, and failure.
A Bend in the River is a timeless novel. Some twenty nine years after first publication if you take this passage as an example: "I had heard dreadful stories of that time, of casual killings over many months by soldiers and rebels and mercenaries, of people trusted up in disgusting ways and being made to sing certain songs while they were beaten to death in the streets", you will soon realise that it is very relevant to certain parts of Africa today. One must pay tribute to Naipaul's profound percepton and unfortunate prophecy.
This is a well observed and down right honest story. For this reason I fear that some readers may well shirk from its truths. In trying to get at the truth, Naipaul has a keen eye for the social conditions and an acute awareness of the mores of the surroundings in which his characters find themselves. The novel is rendered with frankness and heart felt honesty. However, Naipaul knows that we don't simply turn stones and find the truth. In a spirit of disillusionment a minor character tells us: "Do you think we will ever get to know the truth about what has happended in Africa in the last one hundred or even fifty years? All the wars, all the rebellions, all the leaders, all the defeats?
But the novel is much more than a story about the state of Africa or at least that part of Africa that it purports to cover. It is also a story about an ex-colonized people struggling to find a place in what they might perceive as the 'modern' world. Its like being cast off to drift by colonial masters, the 'ex-colonized' suddenly floats towards the shores of the mother countries but then find themselves lost. But what are these 'ex-colonized' people suppose to do? Should they take up the advice of one of Naipaul's characters, Indar, and acknowledge that: "the past can only cause pain" and then trample on it?
It is this theme, the psychological plight of the colonized and ex-conlonized that makes the novel a facinating read. It manifests itself dramatically in the character Salim. To some extent Salim is insecure and angry because he has managed to step outside the colonial frame of consciousness. He becomes adrift; he has no anchor. I quote at length to illustrate the point, and incidently this is symbolic of many a people brought up in the colonial world. This is how Salim describes his existential plight: "I too, breaking out of old ways, had discovered solitude and melancholy which is at the basis of religion. Religion turns the melancholy into uplifting fear and hope. But I had rejected the ways and comforts of religion. I couldn't turn to them again, just like that. That melancholy about the world remained something I had to put up with on my own. At some times it was sharp; at some times it wasn't there."
There is an array of wonderfully drawn characters. I was particularly taken by the couple Mahesh and Shoba. What we have in Mahesh is a bright, ambitious and optimistic man who is nonetheless thawted by his social conditions. In another place and time Mahesh represents the possibilities that could have been realised. What the main characters have in common, which makes them intriguing, is that they are running away from other lives and become caught up, and to some extent trapped, in the vast ramifications of the new post colonial Africa. On the whole these characters are not Africans and so in an ironic twist Naipaul turns the predator, who would exploit Africa for its potential, into hopeless prey simply adrift on a sea of events beyond their control. These characters are at once pityful and pathetic.
The prose is direct and straight forward yet dense with issues that the reader has to tease out. There is no rethorical flourishes. Mataphor and simile are kept to a minimum and where they are used they are not that vivid and memorable. I sense that this approach by Naipaul was deliberate. It's as if he did not want anything to get in the way of his powerful themes and ideas.
Ultimate, this is a novel of ideas. There us religion, politics, history and the eking out of an African intellectual culture. It depicts a people trying to find their feet in a post colonial world but inevitably stumbling. But the book is much more than a depiction of conditions in Africa. Just as important for me, and for others who care about such issues, it outlines the psychological and intellectual plight of people living in former colonies, and who have emmigrated to live in the so called mother countries. This is an honest book that touched me deeply. Twenty nine years on from publication it is still relevant and worth a read.