Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Ways of Pain

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

The world is what it is.

In rereading this fine, remarkably undemonstrative novel, I was struck, more profoundly than ever this time, by the notion (surely not an original one) that the story is a smart, often deeply ironic retelling of Conrad's famous Heart of Darkness, in this case from the jaded, fatalistic, sometimes painfully enervated perspective of a once-colonial subject, a fractious, headstrong young Indian named Salim.

When the novel opens, Salim, the narrator, has left his ancestral home on the coast to strike out on his own, and is living as a petty shopkeeper in a ruined town deep in the African bush, a region recently laid waste by the latest wars of independence. Ever since arriving, he has sensed his essential vulnerability there, for he is not only a man from the coast but an ethnic outsider, a 'bloody Asian,' a muhindi. "Ruins had been left as ruins; no attempt had been made to tidy up. The names of all the main streets had been changed. Rough boards carried the new, roughly lettered names. No one used the new names, because no one particularly cared about them. The wish had only been to get rid of the old, to wipe out the memory of the intruder. It was unnerving, the depth of that African rage, the wish to destroy, regardless of the consequences."   

It is out of this precariousness that the narrator's bleak, often scarifying vision of the modern world unfolds. For, while Naipaul is clearly writing about East Africa, about what he viewed as the post-colonial catastrophe that is Africa today, he is also writing about the ravages of European colonialism writ large, so that, for all of the particularity of the novel's setting (a region which Naipaul got to know quite well), there is something of the allegory to this complex and bewildering tale. As writer Neel Muhkerjee put it in his incisive 2011 reassessment of the novel, "At times, it is a book about the tension between being and becoming, played out on the bass and treble clefs of the individual and the global; at others, about the silent, patient rage of history; about how free, if at all, one can be of history and its burdens."

It is no secret to Naipaul's fans, that he, an Indian born and raised as a colonial subject in Trinidad, the precocious grandson of indentured servants, spent the better part of his life, as a man and writer, and finally as a naturalized English citizen and knight of the realm, locked in a twisted, often brilliant, finally deeply bitter struggle to find place for himself in this world. As with Naipaul himself, Salim, the narrator of this superb re-imagining of Conrad's darkest vision, is both Marlow and Kurtz, at once the innocent, the acolyte, and the one who has seen too much.

Peter Adam Nash

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