KISANGANI, ZAIRE -- In V.S. Naipaul's "A Bend in the River," a novel set in this soporific city in the center of Africa, an Indian businessman named Mahesh explains the ethical underpinnings of local life.
"It isn't that there's no right and wrong here," says Mahesh. "There's no right."
Naipaul's book has an unnerving resonance for a traveler who wanders the streets of Kisangani, a city of 400,000 inhabitants, a provincial capital isolated in the vast eastern outback of a country that is mostly rain forest. The novel has an almost clinical precision; every sentence rings true.
"The red dust of the streets that turned to mud in rain, the overcast sky that meant only more heat, the clear sky that meant a sun that hurt, the rain that seldom cooled and made for a general clamminess, the brown river with the lilac-colored flowers on rubbery green vines that floated on and on, night and day."
In the novel, there is an oppressive sense of climatic and moral torpor, a sweaty somnolence that rots fancy new buildings and fancy new values. A decade after the novel was written, the streets of Kisangani still teem with this torpor.
On the crumbling porch of a women's boutique, a night guard snores on a bed of cardboard. Like most of the city's sidewalk watchmen, he vigilantly sleeps away a hot day's night. The guardian of Boutique Babawambu is nearly naked, and his body is glistening with sweat. During his slumbers he protects himself and the boutique by means of a metaphorical fence, a single strand of twine strung between pillars of the shop's porch.
Down at the Cafe Transit, an open-air night club with warm beer and a local reggae band, men don't dance much. Instead, they sit at round tables and stare at the women who dance with each other. The dancers sway their hips slowly and lubriciously. They daub moisture from their faces with swatches of multicolored Zairian cloth. The band never quite drowns out the grinding, screeching night sounds of the bush that surrounds the city.
At the restaurant of the Hotel de Chute, a prestige address of the colonial era, there is no food and no drink, and two of three ceiling fans are out of order. A waiter takes an order, runs across the street and buys a Coke from a street vendor whose refrigeration system is a wheelbarrow covered with a damp burlap sack.
The word "unnerving" recurs in Naipaul's novel, the title of which comes from Kisangani's location on a bend in the Zaire River. What unnerves the novel's narrator is a sense of the town's irreversible decline.
As he describes it, prosperity has come and gone, chased away by anticolonial "African Rage" and kept away by a predatory government. The enveloping bush -- impenetrable and full of dread -- is stealing back into town, infiltrating streets with black-green vines, choking modern life.
"To be among the ruins was to have your time-sense unsettled. You felt like a ghost, not from the past, but from the future. You felt that your life and ambition had already been lived out for you and you were looking at the relics of that life. You were in a place where the future had come and gone."
The nihilism that marks so much of Naipaul's extensive writing about the Third World often makes for dispiriting reading. One wonders if the developing world is really so bleak or if perhaps Naipaul is darkening it with his own gloomy temperament.
In "A Bend in the River," at least, the answer seems to be that Naipaul, whatever his temperament, is a remarkably accurate journalist. He stumbled upon a nasty corner of the world and captured its essence.
Nearly a century before the postindependence violence and corruption that was the backdrop and inspiration for Naipaul's novel, Kisangani (then called Stanleyville) was violent and corrupt.
Shortly after the American explorer Henry Morton Stanley "discovered" the town in 1877, Arabs from Zanzibar turned it into a slave depot.
They, in turn, were pushed out by Belgian profiteers who made this the "inner station" for their bestial harvest of rubber and ivory. The Belgians used amputations as motivational techniques to get the most out of their local employees.
When Congolese rebels in 1964 threatened to cut out the hearts of 1,300 white hostages in Stanleyville and "dress ourselves in their flayed skins," they were only continuing a time-honored tradition of foul play at the bend in the river.
Since Naipaul wrote his book a decade ago, life has settled down here. There have been no bloody uprisings. Foreign shopkeepers, most of them Indians from the East African coast, have drifted back. The town's ethos, as Naipaul describes it, seems to endure.
I talked with one young Indian businessman as he sweated, drank beer and ate his supper at a local restaurant. He retails soap, clothing and bread. He said he makes "very good" profits by charging 400 percent markups.
Last year, Zaire's president, Mobutu Sese Seko, said that foreigners should turn over their shops to Zairians. The young businessman noted, however, that envelopes stuffed with cash effectively cool the enforcement zeal of local officials.
"With money," he said, "you can do anything here."
On the outskirts of Kisangani, there are huge rapids at the bend in the river. Near those rapids is a 5-year-old boy who is an apprentice in the Kisangani school of business.
He smiles broadly at strangers who come to the river to watch the sunset. He rushes to a position between them and the rapids. He gestures grandly at the darkening sky, at the tumbling water, at the rising moon. When it is dark, he demands cash.