Sunday, January 2, 2011

V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River: A Review

I want to begin this new year of blogging with a review of one of the most famous books by V.S. Naipaul, a controversial writer and a Nobel Prize winner. Before I begin, I want to warn you that if you are here with the goal of ripping off this review to pass it as an essay at school, you are making a huge mistake. Not only because plagiarism is always stupid and wrong but also because my reading of this novel is very different from what your teacher wants to hear. Feel free to see if I'm right at your own peril.

V.S. Naipaul differs from many other postcolonial writers in that his attitude towards independence is a lot more complex, painful, and honest than the usual starry-eyed "Yippee! We are finally free from the vile, horrible empire" we keep getting from the writers of the postcolonial reality. I am a postcolonial subject, too. Believe me, there is nothing I like more than denouncing the ills of imperial domination. This is why I have to admire Naipaul's courage in demonstrating the fallacies of an unconditional acceptance of independence.

A Bend in the River describes post-independence struggles of an unnamed African country whose experiences are in many ways similar to those of other newly independent nations irrespective of their geographical location. The process of creating a new, post-colonial identity is central to such nations. Naipaul realizes that the only way of analyzing the workings of identity formation is from a distance. This is why the first-person narrator of this story, Salim, is a perennial outsider in all communities he inhabits. As an onlooker, Salim is in the position to notice and analyze identity-related issues better than others. This capacity, however, results in his marginalization:
A Bend in the River is a story of Salim's efforts to accept unquestioningly the nationalistic discourse of the country where he comes to reside and his failure to do so. As hard as this character tries, he never manages to escape the realization that independence is a lot more problematic than anybody around him wishes to accept. In the novel, we see a gradual disintegration of a newly independent country that leads to an ever-growing violence.
So from an early age I developed the habit of looking, detaching myself from a familiar scene and trying to consider it as from a distance. It was from this habit of looking that the idea came to me that as a community we had fallen behind. And that was the beginning of my insecurity. I used to think of this feeling of insecurity as a weakness, a failing of my own temperament, and I would have been ashamed if anyone had found out about it. I kept my ideas about the future to myself.

Naipaul's writings have been very controversial because he verbalizes those feelings and experiences of post-colonial that we don't want to acknowledge even to ourselves. Salim's friend who is even more removed from his country of origin by virtue of his European education expresses some of these concerns whose mere existence is unacceptable to many:
I hadn’t understood to what extent our civilization had also been our prison. I hadn’t understood either to what extent we had been made by the place where we had grown up, made by Africa and the simple life of the coast, and how incapable we had become of understanding the outside world. We have no means of understanding a fraction of the thought and science and philosophy and law that have gone to make that outside world. We simply accept it. We have grown up paying tribute to it, and that is all that most of us can do. We feel of the great world that it is simply there, something for the lucky ones among us to explore, and then only at the edges. It never occurs to us that we might make some contribution to it ourselves. And that is why we miss everything. When we land at a place like London Airport we are concerned only not to appear foolish. It is more beautiful and more complex than anything we could have dreamed of, but we are concerned only to let people see that we can manage and are not overawed. We might even pretend that we had expected better. That is the nature of our stupidity and incompetence. And that was how I spent my time at the university in England, not being overawed, always being slightly disappointed, understanding nothing, accepting everything, getting nothing.
"Our stupidity and incompetence?" How dare he? Haven't we been schooled to proclaim ourselves as owners of alternative and much better forms of knowledge, inhabitants of a different kind of civilization? Haven't we been told ad nauseam that we have our own Prousts and Hegels? And if nobody knows or appreciates this special contribution of ours, that doesn't mean anything is wrong with the contribution. It just means the world is unjust and its system of values is all wrong. This is what we defend with everything we have while falling over ourselves in our rush to possess as many attributes of the hated colonial masters. Contempt and desire of that which is apparently so disdained are among the unavoidable attributes of the postcolonial experience.

Naipaul's analysis of every facet of how national identities are created and imposed is nothing short of brilliant. To give just one example, every national identity requires legitimizing heroic figures that embody the best characteristics of the nation. These figures are invented, distorted, mythologized and contested by groups within the country that struggle for the right to propose their own version of national identity. Naipaul demonstrates with absolute brilliance how such symbols of national identity end up robbing the national subject of individuality:
I studied the large framed photographs of Gandhi and Nehru and wondered how, out of squalor like this, those men had managed to get themselves considered as men. It was strange, in that building in the heart of London, seeing those great men in this new way, from the inside, as it were. Up till then, from the outside, without knowing more of them than I had read in newspapers and magazines, I had admired them. They belonged to me; they ennobled me and gave me some place in the world. Now I felt the opposite. In that room the photographs of those great men made me feel that I was at the bottom of a well. I felt that in that building complete manhood was permitted only to those men and denied to everybody else. Everyone had surrendered his manhood, or a part of it, to those leaders. Everyone willingly made himself smaller the better to exalt those leaders. . .  We have nothing. We solace ourselves with that idea of the great men of our tribe, the Gandhi and the Nehru, and we castrate ourselves.
As much as one might admire Gandhi, it does get annoying to encounter yet another set of pious platitudes every time his (or any other independence leader's) name is mentioned. Any national identity is based on a set of myths that fall apart under even a very superficial kind of scrutiny. This is why national identities are so bound with emotions: we have to be blinded by our deeply emotional response to our particular piece of painted fabric, venerated independence leaders, mythology of first oppression then liberation in order to buy these poorly constructed myths.

Naipaul has made himself hated by many when he started discussing the problematic nature of each newly-achieved independence, each nationalistic mythology. His honesty leaves me speechless, while his beautiful writing style makes me feel ashamed of everything I have ever written in English. We often believe that a great writer is somebody who makes us nod our heads and think, "Oh, this is so true." That isn't greatness, though. A true genius tells us things we never thought of before, makes us angry by an assault on widely-accepted trivialities. This is precisely the kind of writer Naipaul is. A Bend in the River is, in my opinion, his angriest and consequently his best novel.


Tom Carter said...

Nice review. I've heard of Naipaul, of course, but never read his books. I'll probably fix that now.

Post-colonialism is an interesting and complex subject. I've lived and worked in a number of post-colonial societies, including two African countries, and I've studied post-colonialism from political and development standpoints. It's important to distinguish among societies/countries both in terms of the historical period during which they were colonies and the nature of the people themselves. It's hard to do that because of the limitations of political correctness, especially where Africa is concerned. Many people are firmly wedded to the idea that everybody everywhere is exactly equal in every respect, and that's partcularly true of many of the USAID development specialists I knew and worked with in Africa. To show how bad it can get, I was once told flat-out by a very senior USAID official that any idea of reducing aid to Africa is, by definition, racist.

Many of these same people honestly believe that there's never been an African Einstein, Newton, Tesla, Salk, Goddard ... (the list is very long) because of the evils of colonialism. That simply isn't true. There are differences among peoples of all kinds, and these differences explain why some societies fall prey to colonialism in the first place, find it very difficult to escape, and develop slowly if at all when left to their own devices. As evil as colonialism was in some cases, the fact remains that in much of Africa there wouldn't be a paved road, a modern building, or a modern infrastructure if the former colonial power hadn't built them. In many cases, there wouldn't even be a literate language; in most post-colonial African societies, educated people read, write, and think in the language of the former colonial power.

So when we bemoan the era of colonialism, especially in Africa, we need to keep some perspective on how bad things might have been if it hadn't existed.

Clarissa said...

Thank you for a great comment, Tom! One gets very tired of simplistic approaches to colonialism that insists on seeing us, former colonial subjects, as perennial victims. Things are always a lot more complex than that.