V.S NAIPAUL'S latest novel, his second to be set in Africa -- the first was in A Free State -- is narrated by Salim, an Indian from the East Coast of Africa. This puts A Bend in the river in a special category of fiction about Africa. The insights are neither European nor African. They are derived from the experience of an Asian whose family, after centuries of living and trading and slave-owning on the coast, has been shattered by the European retreat. Unlike, the European colonials, these Asians are without a civilization, a past, to return to. Salim's story introduces a fresh voice to Naipaul's chorus of colonial refugees; it also brings us important new information about the Asian diaspora on the African continent.
There was no warning of what would happen. Salim says of his merchant forefathers: "They could assess situations; they took risks and sometimes they could be very bold. But they were buried so deep in their lives that they were not able to stand back and consider the nature of their lives. They did what they had to do." One day Indar, the son of a rich banking family, mentions the unmentionable: "'We're washed up here, you know. To be in Africa you have to be strong. We're not strong. We don't even have a flag.' "It comes as a revelation to Slaim. "I had to break away," he says, "I couldn't protect anyone; no one could protect me. We couldn't protect ourselves; we could only in various ways hide from the truth."
He buys a shop sight unseen, far away in the heart of the continent, from an old family friend named Nazruddin who's moved on to more fortunate turf. Salim has made an unspoken promise to marry Nazruddin's daughter someday, but he believes that he has found an escape from binding commitments like this to past tradition. He goes to live in a town on a river 10 days upstream from the capital of a nameless copper-producing state. The book is Salim's account of life in what. Most likely was once called Stanleyville. It's a life that starts in drastic want, is touched by rebellion, then brightened by boom times that precede what promises to be a nightmare.
Salim's chronicle is bare, methodical. There's no tension, little sense of place. Naipaul, speaking through Salim, tells us his story very correctly as though in an unfamiliar language. Naipaul seems to have used most of his energy on verismilitude and his tone is oddly formal, as if he lacked real intimacy with his subject. A Bend in the River evokes only a faint sense of place. It's a methodical account, really, of the people Salim gets to know in his daily rounds. Much of what Naipaul observes about the African condition is good reporting, but the news does'nt add much to what we already know. Many of Naipaul's characters in this novel are right out of the standard African repertory: The Big Man, an abstract of Mobutu, Kasavubu, Nkrumah et. al.; the African boy who's been entrusted to Salim's care; an optimistic Jesuit priest; Raymond -- The Big Man's intellectual mentor and apologist -- and his wife Yvette, who becomes Salim's mistress.
Naipaul's Asians, though, are true originals. Masesh and Shoba, for example, the most beautiful couple in town, are two provincials from the coast, who live like neurotic cats in their concrete apartment. Mahesh is always looking for the quick-profit gimmick and finds it when he buys the franchise for an American hamburger business. "Standing in his nice clothes by his imported coffee machine in his franchise-given shop, he really thought he had made it and had nowhere higher to go." There's also the old family friend Nazruddin, dancing his luck out of one country and into the next, always one step ahead of the doom-sayers. And Indar.
When Indar shows up again in Africa he seems to have made a successful transition: Eight years have gone by, his family has lost much of its wealth, but with the help of a new American friend he has launched a continental interchange program for intellectual refugees. Indars comes and goes. Salim only learns much later what his fate has been. The American "outfit" that financed his boondoggle has withdrawn support and left Indar dangling. Indar's self-esteem has collapsed altogether, apparently after a trip to New York and the discovery that his friend is far richer than he naively believed him to be, "much much holier," not his equal, a dilettante of causes. This realization of his own insignificance destroys Indar, and he retreats to London, accepting menial jobs, wanting only to return to "some dream village in his head."
Salim finally ends up in London too, like Nazruddin and Indar. He leaves his ruined town just before the nightmare, after his business has been taken over by the government and given to an illiterate mechanic. He keeps the faith after all and becomes engaged to Nazruddin's daughter. He's survived his initiation into the cramped new world of refugees.
"My view tends to be historical and within that context I have enormous sympathy for everyone," Naipaul said recently. Naipaul does have a marvelous knack for showing the historical truth behind political events. The value of his fiction depends in parts on this historical view. If Naipaul had pursued more deeply his inquiry into the history of the coastal Asians and Arabs of East Africa, he might have entered Salim's world and we would then be able to understand the pain of dislocation that his characters experience. It might have provided us with a new vision of Africa. Salim clearly has Naipaul's sympathy, but he seems not to have the author's vital attention. He needs it, if only to insist more urgently upon the importance of this story.