Africa Reading Challenge – 3. A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul
When Salim leaves his home on Africa’s ocean coast to take over a small trading shop deep in the continent’s interior he embarks on an adventure that marks his coming of age – in stark contrast to the progress of his adopted country, which is stuck in an endless cycle of upheaval.
The town at the bend in the river has emerged from colonial rule to strike out on its own. Naipaul constructs a fascinating cast of characters – Greeks, Asians and left-over colonials – that still turn up in the most unlikely of African backwaters today. There are small shops selling nothing very much, tedious local officials and an endless supporting cast of mysterious mercenaries and mzungus who have caught the eye of the president.
Salim, a young man from an Indian family, is both an insider and an outsider: Viewed as a foreigner by the locals but with no other home except Africa he makes a perfect narrator of the repeated crises that erupt around him. The writing is at times blinding, brilliantly evoking the feel of the trading posts that give Africa its heartbeat and the crooks and thugs trying to smother it.
They made such play with the national flag and the portrait of the President – the two now always going together – that in the beginning I thought these new officers stood for a new, constructive pride. But they were simpler. The flag and the President’s portrait were only like their fetishes, the sources of their authority. They didn’t see, these young men, that there was anything to build in their country. As far as they were concerned, it was all there already. They only had to take.
A deeply depressing read but at the same time it captures a time and a place that seems to perfectly describe the trouble with Africa.
My previous reviews in the Africa Reading Challenge