A Bend in the River’ was published when Naipaul was nearly 50. One of the greatest novels about the process of “becoming” (as opposed to “being”) a nation, especially after the colonising powers have departed, it is tense with a taut hyper-awareness and knowledge of every nuance, subtext, context and history of the various mix of peoples in the unnamed Central African country where the book is located. Indwellers; assimilated and semi-assimilated Arab traders; erstwhile slave classes now racially intermingled with the Arabs who used to own them; the bush or village Africans; Europeans; the diasporic peoples of the Indian Ocean (to which our first-person narrator, Salim, belongs); visitors; expatriates . . . ‘White Teeth’ wasn’t quite the first multicultural novel.
“After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities,” remarks Salim. Each time I come to ‘A Bend in the River’, I seem to read a new book. At times, it is a book about the tension between being and becoming, played out on the bass and treble clefs of the individual and the global; at others, about the silent, patient rage of history; about how free, if at all, one can be of history and its burdens.
It is, ultimately, a meditation about the genre that subsumes all others, history, of which we are subjects and to which we are subjected (to paraphrase Foucault). It is wholly in accord with the book that the two great historians of empire, Gibbon and Mommsen, should merit multiple references. The prose is pared down, unobtrusive, and the deceptively simple sentences can wield a surgical knife at the flick of a comma.
The structure of the book – moving from the peripheries to the centre, geographically and metaphorically – reminds me of Cocteau’s words, “Un homme profond ne monte pas, il s’enfonce” (“a profound person does not rise, he goes deeper”). The profundity of the novel lies exactly in this depth of enquiry into the biggest question: what is one’s place in the world and how does one fit into it? Any other novel asking these questions would likely spin them into “around-the-house-and-in-the-yard” tales of love and redemption. Naipaul uses them to achieve nothing short of an archaeology of the destiny of nations and peoples.
No one has parsed with such nuance and ferocious clarity the implosion of a nation, the complex web of causes behind it and the groups of peoples caught up in that seismic unravelling. He has shown us harsh, intractable truths, which have not agreed with the ideologies of the liberal-relativists and the politically correct police force of the post-colonial industry. Their fashionable rage against him is, to paraphrase another writer, the rage of Caliban looking at his face in the mirror. History has proved Naipaul right so far. He taught two generations of writers not just how to write – that any careful craftsman can teach you – but also, more crucially and rarely, how to look unflinchingly at things and not turn one’s gaze away.
Neel Mukherjee is the author of ‘A Life Apart’ (Corsair) and a judge for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize