A Bend in the River by V S Naipaul

I came to this book by way of recent reading about the Congo. This book is mainly set there, though the country is never named, either as Congo or Zaire. But ‘The Big Man’, who exerts a distant and baleful influence on events from ‘the Capital’, is clearly Mobutu. Even his infamous leopard skin hat and fetish stick are described in some detail. But he is never named.

There are many fine qualities to this book. For this white, western European reader, the perceptions and attitudes of the protagonist, an Arab African, are fascinating and refreshing or slightly disconcerting, depending on the context. The author is West Indian by birth but he came to England to study and that has been a lasting influence on his writing. The sensibility of the colonized is a key theme of this book. It is hard to imagine it being so powerfully delineated by someone who has no lived experience of it.

The language is spare and undemonstrative. This becomes hypnotic for the reader and creates an affinity for the languor and aimlessness of some of the characters. It also lends understatement and enigma to the dramatic events that unfold later in the book.

The book also has much to say about the nature of Africa and Africans but seen from the perspective of the outsider – ‘the man apart’. It is quizzical, implying of some inner space impenetrable to those not born there.

There are some recurrent, metaphorical, motifs – the invasive water lilies that arrived with the Europeans but which now damage local food production and the way they float down the river, on and on, endlessly; the optimism of the protagonist’s mentor, which survives many vicissitudes, finally coming to rest in London’s Gloucester Road; and the lure and repulsiveness of Europe for those over whom its influence is unchosen but irresistible.

I confess I did not enjoy the only other book by this author I have read, ‘A House for Mr Biswas’. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it. ‘A Bend in the River’ is a good book, dealing with serious issues. It is a bit of a slow burn and the denouement is slightly hurried. But for anyone with an interest in how cultures understand and misunderstand each other, it is required reading.

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