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A Bend in the River, V. S. Naipaul (1979)

This is the first Naipaul novel I’ve read, and I found the experience quite disorienting, in ways both pleasurable and upsetting. I think my upset is what will persist, and that may be a good thing.

I’m well accustomed to literature which travels a predictable path of indignation regarding the injustice of European colonialism. I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything, though, that so fully encompasses the complexity of the relationships between all the various players in a colonial situation. The shorthand version of colonialism — wealthy European whites exploiting poor African blacks — conceals a plethora of more nuanced and complicated relationships. That seems a pretty self-evident thing to say, but I don’t know of another text that brings it to the fore as forcefully as this. Instead of the basic master/slave dynamic, we find here highly complex systems of classes within classes, exiles within exiles, powers within powers.

An ethnic Indian trader prospering on the east coast of Africa moves with his mixed-race slave to an interior African country which was recently decolonized by a European power and is now tipping into a civil war sponsored in part by European interests and partially by ethnic and class divisions within the aboriginal culture. Everything that’s wrong with colonialism (slavery, oppression) and all of its benefits (clean water, electricity) are on display. Everything that’s wrong with independence (kleptocracy, recapitulation of colonial power structures) and all of its benefits (a sense of common destiny and self-determination) are on display. Human relationships are a hall of mirrors. “Everyone is a villager,” and everyone’s a kind of slave. As Naipaul puts it more than once, “It wasn’t that there was no wrong and no right. It was that there was no right.” He has no respect for any of the systems on offer, imperial or revolutionary or anything in-between, and his analysis of how the different constituents of the river town exercise, cede, and accumulate different forms of power — economic, political, sexual, emotional — is nuanced, precise, and persuasive.

All this is an easy sell as far as I’m concerned. I’ve written myself about what seems to be the sad inevitability of revolutions turning back into empires. The discomfort enters for me, though, because it does sort of seem like Naipaul is especially contemptuous of the revolutionary part of the cycle. There are passages here which remind me of Shelby-Steele-like rhetoric, which seem to accuse the oppressed of abetting their oppression, and that kind of thinking makes this white boy fidget with discomfort. It may well be a productive upset, though, because one thing I can say for sure is that few pieties about colonialism can survive a careful reading of this book.

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