18 July 2011

83. V.S. Naipaul, A BEND IN THE RIVER

This was exactly the kind of book I needed to read after LORD JIM, the kind that reminded me that sometimes great books don't coast in on decades of hoary accolades. Its protagonist offered the kind of self-awareness and regret that I felt was sorely lacking from most in Conrad's book. Dense, philosophical, totally fulfilling.

The self-aware regretful one is the book's narrator, Salim, Indian by heritage, East African by birth, running a general store in another African country during the end of its occupation by Europeans and the rise of a dictator known in the book as "The Big Man." (My idle Googling suggests the model for the unnamed country was either Uganda or Zaire; that it could be any number of countries is probably the single most depressing aspect of this book.)

Salim's friend Nazruddin owns the general store but decided to get out amid the political upheaval; for Salim, the city at "the bend in the river" represents a way to postpone the arranged marriage expected of him, the management of the family servants and compound in the East and as a substitute for the European graduate education he won't be receiving -- a sort of summer-abroad approach to career building. But it doesn't really work out that way, because at first Salim sees great opportunity in maintaining the store through independence... and then it becomes dangerous for him to do anything but stay.

A BEND IN THE RIVER personalizes the post-colonial experience through Salim's surrogate family in his adopted hometown, from the other two Indian expats who come to own the town's brand-new fast food franchise, to the priest who runs a nearby school for local boys and collects tribal masks on the side, and even the famed journalist rumored to be writing a biography of The Big Man. At one point he looks after the son of one of his downriver trading partners and one of his family's rebellious servants, who have been packed off in hopes that Salim would be a good influence; Salim himself doubts this, and their own entanglements arguably outstrip his. These characters transcend their specificity to illuminate that moment in history without losing their personalities, and as political changes roll through the town with the rise of The Big Man, they all take them in differently.

Lonely and somewhat aloof from his African neighbors, Salim has a lot of time on his hands to consider that there may no longer be a place for him in the country (and by extension, in all of Africa). Not a colonizer, he still feels something of a patriarchal responsibility to the people he meets, without being able to define where that assignment stops. His ruminations on the state of the nation are in tune with his characterization; I never felt like Naipaul was delivering me something through him, nor did he seem too aware of the ways he has failed what he sees as 'his' role to the city as it shifts and disappears.

Naipaul is still a sexist toolbag, but he wrote at least one riveting book. When I finished it I sat and thought about its eventual conclusion (which I'd prefer to see as not depressing, but analytical, scientific) for a long time, rather than jumping straight into the next one; and there are few higher compliments to be paid here.

Ellen vs. ML: 55 read, 45 unread

Next up: I got an e-galley of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, the new unexpurgated version, so likely that? Tomorrow I'm going to post a list of all the reader suggestions that were made to me the last time I called for htem, and maybe I should start working through those as an approach.

No comments: