I should have planned this better. I should have something lighter than whipped brandy butter and frothier than a shaken up bottle of champagne for you for this seasonal post. Instead I have a masterpiece of African post-colonialism and the all-round political worthiness of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not to fear: the next post will be a round-up of the best reads of the year and if I could embed tinsel into that post, I would. It will be the very fare for your pudding-bloated selves.
But back to business. Back in October, I stumbled across the Guardian’s 100 Greatest Books list which steered me towards some always meritorious, and occasionally enjoyable, reads. The name VS Naipaul piqued my attention with this understated little summary of A Bend in the River: “The finest living writer of English prose. This is his masterpiece: edgily reminiscent of Heart of Darkness.”
Not only was Naipaul on this career-topping Guardian list – there was the small matter of the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.” Only afterwards did I look into this strangely rarely-mentioned prize, which is awarded to an author for his work in general rather than a specific work. I was surprised to see that out of 110 winners since 1901, I had only read 15 and heard of a further 12 (great cracker fact for you: Winston Churchill won in 1953! Who’da thought?) And, with some notable exceptions (Galsworthy, Marquez), they were hard work (Lessing, Faulkner) and even loathed (Pinter, Beckett.)
Ignorant of this, and ignoring the fact that Heart of Darkness is frankly miserable, I set upon A Bend in the River. I won’t mess around: I’ll give you an overview so you don’t have to read it yourself and can return to your mulled wine. The novel tells the story of Salim, an East-Coaster of Indian descent who moves to a town in a fictional central African country as a shopkeeper, expecting to make something of his life. Instead, he lives in a time of turbulence and loses his sense of purpose and identity. More interesting, however, is the backdrop to this story. Salim exists to tell the larger story of the country and its turbulent journey post-independence.
It is a vivid picture of an Africa exchanging one state of subordination for another. Just as the Arabs had once owned the area, followed by the Europeans, we see it as it comes into the hands of the Africans who both mimic Europe and define themselves in contrast to it. This element of the story is astonishing. Through the town and its people, the reality of Africa at this point in history is told with enormous emotional perceptiveness that makes you see with new eyes what it must have been like to live at this time. What’s revealed is enormously nuanced, contradictory and eminently painful. Take Salim’s account of his relationship with Theotime, the man who has taken over his shop by government mandate, making Salim, previously his senior, become his manager and underling:
“It was strange. He wanted me to acknowledge him as the boss. At the same time he wanted me to make allowances for him as an uneducated man and an African. He wanted both my respect and my tolerance, even my compassion. He wanted me, almost to act out my subordinate role as a favour to him. Yet if, responding to his plea, I did so … the authority he put on then was very real. He added it to his idea of his role; and he would use that authority later to extort some new concession … Theotime, moving quickly from a simple confidence in his role to an understanding of his helplessness, wanted you to pretend that he was another kind of man.”
The novel escalates to a very dark place and near the end comes a conversation which gets to the heart of the tragedy. Salim is talking with Ferdinand, a government commissioner he has known since he was a village boy. Ferdinand says:
“You mustn’t think it’s bad just for you. It’s bad for everybody … Nobody’s going anywhere. We’re all going to hell, and every man knows this in his bones. We’re being killed. Nothing has any meaning. That is why everyone is so frantic. Everyone wants to make his money and run away. But where? That is what is driving people mad. They feel they’re losing the place they can run back to … Everything that was given to me was given to me to destroy me.”
Not many books can give you such a searing consciousness of an era, and that of course is the sort of thing that wins you a Nobel Prize. But the characters and storyline of the novel are less successful, and I disagree with the statement that Naipaul is one of the greatest writers of English prose. A Bend in the River is a study of post-colonial Africa with unparalleled psychological understanding rather than A Great Read. If you have an interest in Africa or African fiction, then you should already be out of the door on your way to the bookshop. If, however, you don’t, look out for a post twinkling with tinsel.