There is a storied catalogue of fiction about the effect which Imperial Rule has on both ruler and ruled. But there are two basic things to which one has to admit if one wishes to discuss it:
1. I haven’t read most of it.
2. Most of what I’ve read is pretty boring.
When it comes to cataloguing suffering, fiction is in a particularly tough bind. Whether the sub-genre is ‘White Males Are Bad’ or ‘Goyim Are Bad’, ‘Look what these evil people did to me’ doesn’t make for compelling fiction. ‘Look what evil people did’ is precisely why we often read history books and eye-witness testimony. The more horrific the detail, the more we love it. Nobody can get around the fact that so much of history has an almost pornographic tone; full of murderers, rapists, liars and plunderers.
Nothing in fiction can compare with real life. In fiction, we read about individual murders and the betrayals of one person to another. But fiction cannot begin (or at least has not begun) to cover the vast network of motives that lead half a society to murder the other half. If you want to read about real evil, nothing in Shakespeare can compare with a police blotter. We simply can’t believe that people would be so evil, but we can’t help reading on because it’s through that process that we begin to wonder about the darkness of our own natures - merely by reading about the acts of butchery, we become complicit in them. We can’t stop them, and having never been in their situations, we don’t know if we would if we could. We may feel horror and revulsion for what they do, but it also leaves an aftertaste of horror and revulsion at ourselves. Of course, many considerate questions come out of that reading, but why would we be provoked into asking them unless so much of history did not happen at the most viscral level?
But if a fiction writer constructs hundreds of pages around a character who undergoes a bunch of awful situations that resemble the sufferings of real people - but didn’t actually happen - he would do well to find a second hook. The difference between ‘this did happen’ and ‘it’s just a story’ is deeply embedded in our unconscious. We can be overwhelmed by a story, moved to terror and tears, but if the story doesn’t ask deeper questions, we discard it from our memory as easily as a toy. If the motivations of the story can be explained in less than a paragraph, what reason is there left to read?
A Bend in the River begins with what might be the most famous opening sentence in any book from the twentieth century’s second half: 'The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it'. And it is with this bold declaration that Naipaul sets up the expectation of a sociopathically pitiless view of human affairs. We are led deliberately to expect a Homeric (or perhaps Leni Riefenstahl-esque) hymn to the willful triumph of the strong over the weak. Indeed, many readers have fallen for it and still consider Naipaul the ultimate colonial apologist in spite of so much evidence to the contrary. Many of his fellow writers consider him the ultimate case of literary Stockholm Syndrome. Time after time, he’s attacked in the press as an inhumane monster of a writer; unsympathetic and resentful to the plight of the third world about which he’s written volumes. It's a view he’s done nothing to refute in interviews, during which he seems to take relish in the most provocative statements. But however inhumane Naipaul is in person, charges of inhumanity are refuted by his writing.
The tension between that apparent pitilessness and the overflowing compassion of what follows in A Bend in the River creates a narrative of, at times, atomic power. The question of how to make mass fictional suffering palpable is solved all too simply - we never see it happen. We see minor skirmishes that could be threats of things to come, but we never read anything so heinous that it couldn’t conceivably happen in the best neighborhoods of the First World. We read about people living; birthing, dying, working, fucking, betraying, saving, feeling, thinking, creating, destroying and surviving. And all under the threat of far larger forces that can destroy the fragile lives they spent years building at any moment. The subject of this book is not death, but life.
The Indian Muslim from whose point of view the book is told, Salim, is not a sentimental man. He owns a slave, he patronizes prostitutes, he deserts his parents’ family and he continually goes back on his promise to marry a woman. Yet it is clear that he does more work for the slave than the slave does for him, he falls in love all too easily, and his guilt about leaving his family is crippling. He all too easily sees the flaws in others, therefore when they act with noble intentions he is moved all the more. He is an unreliable person who makes for an extremely reliable narrator.
Through his eyes, we meet the people of an unnamed African country (probably Zaire) called ‘The Domain’ in transition. Among others, we meet Metty, his African slave who is all too dependant and worshipful of his master. We meet Shoba and Mahesh, the Indian Muslim couple forced to flee for their lives because their families opposed their marriage. We meet Raymond, the white intellectual who lives in ‘The Domain’ so he can lend credibility to its leader. We meet his young European wife, Yvette, seduced by Raymond’s intellectual allure and lead into a life of disappointment and isolation. And we meet Ferdinand, an African of ‘The Bush’, who is promoted over time to a station well past everyone he knows as part of the ‘radicalization’ process.
These are people who, like most of us, live lives that are generally unfulfilling. Unlike most of us, they also live every day with the knowledge that their lives could turn far worse at any moment. The dread they feel is unbearable, and in their desperation they look to their President-For-Life (probably based on Mobutu Sese Seko), whom they refer to as ‘The Big Man’, as the person who will deliver them from their massive problems. As a reward for their hopes, they eventually find themselves the scapegoats for the problems of the entire country. The novel ends with a heartbreaking scene in which Salim gets ready to board a ship to leave before a town massacre and tells Metty that he will be left behind but that he will be alright after it’s over because this too shall pass. Neither Salim, nor Metty, nor we, have any reason to believe it’s true. But we tell these lies in order to carry on all the same.
If it is, in fact, Zaire of which Naipaul is writing, the book becomes all the more poignant. In the three decades after A Bend in the River’s publishing, Zaire became all the more fraught with massive violence. The Death Toll form the Congo Wars now stands at well over 3 million people. A fragile semblance of civilization like the one Salim and Metty lived in at the bend in the river would be utterly impossible in today’s world. That opening salvo, which can inspire such revulsion as we begin, appears to absorb new qualities - perhaps declared in resignation rather than hatefulness, or perhaps even a howl from the graveyard.