A Bend in the River
Appearing before the African subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, two nongovernmental authorities on Zaire urged that the United States dissociate itself from support of Zaire’s President, Mobutu Sese Seko, or risk serious damage to American interests in Africa. Another witness urged continued assistance, but with some reduction in military aid.—New York Times, March 6
V.S. Naipaul’s special haunts are the mud flats or the drear and naked shingle left by the ebbed British Empire, “a life as grim as a tidal rock pool’s,” in Auden’s phrase about places another recession had exposed. The Caribbean, India, Africa: people there are not very nice to those beached among them, or to visitors, or to one another.
Once those sun-baked strands were funny, as in his second novel The Suffrage of Elvira (1958) set in Naipaul’s native Trinidad. There Surujpat Harbans runs for the Legislative Council in the second election under universal adult suffrage (nobody had seen the possibilities, in the first) from Elvira, a poor part of the smallest, most isolated, and most neglected of Trinidad’s nine counties. Mr. Harbans of Harbans Transport Service sweats and connives with Baksh tailor for the Muslim vote and with Chittaranjan goldsmith for the Hindu and Spanish and some of the Negro vote.
“Is talk I want to talk with you, Baksh.”
“Five thousand out of eight thousand. You can’t lose. Majority of two thousand. Remember, I, Chittaranjan, is for you.”
The calypso minstrel show of democracy turns into a happy pidgin carnival of confusion with dogs, chickens, multiple bribes, and a case of whiskey. In the end Nelly goes to the Polytechnic in London and sends home an umbrella for her father and a set of four china birds for her mother. “The birds flew on the wall next to the picture of Mahatma Gandhi and King George V. The umbrella became part of Chittaranjan’s visiting outfit. So, Harbans won the election and the insurance company lost a Jaguar. Chittaranjan lost a son-in-law and Dhaniram lost a daughter-in-law. Elivra lost Lorkhoor and Lorkhoor won a reputation. Elvira lost Mr. Cuffy. And Preacher lost his deposit.” Mr. Pickwick should have been there for The Suffrage of Elvira.
The witnesses at today’s hearing said that much of the $17 million in aid from one American program had been appropriated by Zaire’s elite and sold at inflated prices or even diverted to neighboring countries for hard currencies. They also estimated that $300 million of a $400 million coffee crop was lost through foreign exchange corruption.
Not so funny was the lifelong struggle of Mr. Biswas for a house of his own. He too was in Trinidad, but still under British rule. In A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) Naipaul has him born, as he dies, “Mr. Biswas.” “They were awakened by the screams of Mr. Biswas and the shrieks of the midwife….” Mr. Biswas is six-fingered and born the wrong way. His story among the immensely long and complicated annals of the poor must be one of those told with the most love and care and with the calmest voice. He dies at forty-six with four children and no money, “his wife Shama had no money,” but there on Sikkim Street is his house—mortgaged to the rafters, but there.
The staircase was dangerous; the upper floor sagged; there was no back door; most of the windows didn’t close; one door could not open; the celotex panels under the eaves had fallen out and left gaps between which bats could enter the attic….
Mr. Biswas’s love for that house is like some miracle wood-preserver that holds it up.
The kitchen safe…. How often he had stained and varnished it! And painted it too. Patches of the netting were clogged, and varnish and paint had made a thick uneven skin on the woodwork. And in what colors he had painted it! Blue and green and even black. In 1938, the week the Pope died and the Sentinel came out with a black border, he had come across a large tin of yellow paint and painted everything yellow, even the typewriter.
V.S. Naipaul was six in Trinidad that year a Pope died. Around the world, not many younger than Mr. Biswas seem to have had even his chances when they, like him, were born unnecessary and unaccommodated.
Subcommittee Chairman Stephen J. Solarz, Democrat of Brooklyn, said that he was “gravely concerned about the situation in Zaire” and added, “We may have another Iran on our hands.”
Representative Solarz said that President Mobutu appeared to have lost the support of most Zairians, whose hunger and inclination toward a violent solution were growing daily.
Violence came to the Caribbean soon enough: Guerrillas, 1975. Peter Roche comes, a “great hero” tortured in South Africa and released by an international outcry. But Roche “had no political dogma and no longer had a vision of a world made good.” His clear-sighted author says of him, “And he was a clear-sighted man, even cynical.” Even. That must be clear-sighted indeed. Comes Roche’s girl Jane, an English adventuress: “Adventuring, she was indifferent, perhaps blind, to the contradictions between what she said and what she was so secure of being.” In this, she is England, is Europe. In the unnamed African country of Naipaul’s new novel, A Bend in the River, in the unnamed outpost far upcountry (Kisangani sometime Stanleyville, 1,000 miles from Kinshasa once Leopoldville), there is Yvette the lovely Belgian. She too is Europe, she too has a love affair with the non-European hero. She has style. Jimmy, the hakwai (nigger) Chinese, said in Trinidad, “You may not be able to make a living in England, but England teaches you how to live.” You cannot live long with Jane or with Yvette but you do not know what style is until you have had them, and you are never the same again. Jane is pretty but then becomes physically awkward and we know the author will have her murdered. He has the hakwai Jimmy do it with a machete. Yvette gets home free so far as we know.
They are European. What that means is a question considered by the Indian trader Salim, in A Bend in the River. Salim, recalling his home on the east coast of Africa (Dar es Salaam?) before he left for the Congo after Independence, says,
Those of us who had been in that part of Africa before the Europeans had never lied about ourselves. Not because we were more moral. We didn’t lie because we never assessed ourselves and didn’t think there was anything for us to lie about; we were people who simply did what we did. But the Europeans could do one thing and say something quite different; and they could act in this way because they had an idea of what they owed to their civilization. It was their great advantage over us. The Europeans wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else; but at the same time they wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves. Being an intelligent and energetic people, at the peak of their powers, they could express both sides of their civilization; and they got both the slaves and the statues.
Yvette appropriately is from the homeland of Kurtz’s enterprise, Kurtz whose great lies Marlowe discovered to be so unfathomably profound in the heart of the Congo darkness. In Salim’s unnamed city on the Congo river, Father Huismans, head of the lycée, collects carvings, masks, pieces of old machines, one with the nameplate of a Belgian river steamer of the late 1890s. He gets his head cut off and spiked. Later, his collection is stolen by a young American, “no doubt to be the nucleus of the gallery of primitive art he often spoke of starting.”
The hearing on Zaire was preliminary to a decision by Congress on whether to appropriate the $38.4 million requested by the Carter Administration in economic, food and military assistance for the next fiscal year. That amount would be an increase of $3.5 million over the present aid level.
Lest we suppose that Naipaul hankers for the good old days of British Governor and District Officer, we have his histories, among them The Loss of El Dorado (1969). From the Spanish conquest, from Ralegh, from General Picton the hero of Waterloo, to twentieth-century tourists, Trinidad was a backwater and battleground of one empire after another, of slavers and slaves, of pirates, of cruelties so great only the twentieth century perhaps can match them. Like the heroes of his novels, the peoples of Naipaul’s land are as persistent as they can be in humanity and then they are lost. Everything is history and they are footnotes to it. There was a tribe whose only memorial is a few words in a letter of October 12, 1625, from the King of Spain to his Governor in Trinidad, marshaling-ground of the search for golden El Dorado. “A certain nation of Indians called Chaguanes, who you say are above one thousand, and of such bad disposition that it was they who led the English when they captured the town…. You have decided to give them a punishment. Follow the rules I have given you….”
What was done is not known; but soon, in the place called Chaguanas, no one would know that there was once a people called Chaguanes. The fact of their existence is recorded, so far as I know, only in this document; and this document was disinterred from the Spanish archives only in 1897.
Indians from India began to arrive in 1855. The story of a backwater. “But what a story,” J.H. Plumb has said, “and what a writer.”
Then there is Naipaul’s report of 1977, India: A Wounded Civilization, most of it published in this journal. Naipaul’s forebears had left it a hundred years ago. “India in the late twentieth century still seems so much itself, so rooted in its own civilization, it takes time to understand that its independence has meant more than the going away of the British; that the India to which Independence came was a land of far older defeat; that the purely Indian past died a long time ago.” Washed clean of Indian religious attitudes, Naipaul found the distress of India almost insupportable. It was like a trapdoor.
His stories are history, his histories stories. So are the pieces of journals he has given us. None of these writings has the dark, sulphurous, fascinating certainty of damnation that Graham Greene makes us smell in his stories about these sorts of places. Naipaul’s people may suffer as much as anybody’s—more than we do, but like us they suffer without curse or blessing. The cruelty they inflict or endure is not divinely ordered. History does not punish, it happens. The only sin of the Caribs was being there, their only vengeance syphilis. In history and in Naipaul’s stories people disappear like the Chaguanes. Or they persist.
Neither colonizers nor liberated savages have a monopoly on cruelty, although their situations may give them unusual opportunities. Casual tourists can play their parts as well, in smaller ways. One of his brief journal entries of the book In a Free State (1971) recounts an episode in Luxor. Desert children beg at the rest-house terrace. An Egyptian in Arab dress drives them off with a camel-whip. Italian tourists toss out apples and scraps of sandwiches so the Egyptian can use his camel-whip. The Germans and the English don’t notice. The Italians take snapshots. The writer of the journal angrily wrests the whip away. The Germans stare at him. Later a troupe of chinese from a circus show up with colored postcards of Chinese peonies. “Peonies, China! So many empires had come here. Not far from where we were was the colossus on whose shin the Emperor Hadrian had caused to be carved verses in praise of himself, to commemorate his visit. On the other bank, not far from the Winter Palace, was a stone with a rougher Roman inscription marking the southern limit of the Empire, defining an area of retreat. Now another, more remote empire was announcing itself.” For a clear-sighted man with no political dogma, no religious dogma, such sights and such thoughts might well come nigh the insupportable. He is left with “anger and a sense of injustice.”
The witnesses provided a grim description of the central African nation, formerly the Belgian Congo. They said Zaire’s systematic corruption had brought the country to a near-collapse, to widespread hunger, to starvation and possibly to a hopeless international indebtedness.
Dr. M. Crawford Young of the University of Wisconsin, a leading authority in Zairian studies, said that President Mobutu might survive, but also said that social alienation was certainly sufficient to set off large-scale rioting that could bring down the government.
When his community in Tanzania is broken up, Salim, the central figure in A Bend in the River, buys a run-down store in Zaire, from Nazruddin, a Europeanized trader, fancier of wines and money; he treks through the bush of Central Africa to take over the store, and finds the remnants of another community. There is Ferdinand, tricky son of Zabeth the witch woman and bush trader, soon a lycée boy under that Father Huismans who is to be beheaded, and a kind of foster son to Salim. Metty, a family slave, follows Salim. An Indian couple, Mahesh and Shoba, are fugitives from her family on the old East Coast: in the boom Mahesh opens a prefabricated American Bigburger stand and prospers. Salim makes out selling pots and pans and bush goods. The President—always offstage, always present by his portrait in a leopard-skin cap on all walls—builds a grand new Domain to replace the European quarter destroyed in the late troubles. It is the New Africa, concrete and glass, a University and Research Center.
There appears Raymond, the big scholarly Africanist, who once in legend befriended the boy who would become president. Yvette, the stylish Belgian woman, is his wife. Appears again smooth Indar, Salim’s friend from the Coast, once scion of rich moneylenders. Now he is hooked up with something like the Congress for Cultural Freedom of sainted memory: some American benefactor is moving first-generation African intellectuals from one place to another as they get in trouble, creating the New Africa. “The idea has worked beautifully.” Appear guerrillas, as Salim listens to talk of the New Africa at the Domain and makes love with Yvette. Appear the President’s mercenaries….
The little shipwrecked colony festers and plots. Raymond, it seems, is now but an aged Casaubon pretending to work on his great nonexistent book. Indar leaves…. Salim gets to London for a visit. He sees only Gloucester Road, Indians, Arabs with their slaves—no more need to smuggle them, they have passports now. Again he sees the trader Nazruddin, a wise man. He has lost most of his money in Canadian mines. “You mustn’t think it’s only Africa people are running from. Mostly nowadays, since Switzerland closed down, they are going to the United States and Canada. And they are waiting for them there, to take them to the cleaners. There they meet the experts. The South Americans are waiting for the South Americans, the Asians for the Asians, the Greeks for the Greeks. And they take them to the cleaners.”
Salim and his friends, back at the bend in the Congo, revolve in their plots and schemes and affairs, but what they do doesn’t matter, it is only human. Salim is very human, as we say, meaning he is not bad, rather stronger than weaker since he is alive; he has no obsession, no politics, no religion. In the end he spits on Yvette. He is afraid often, and sees the way fear, and temporary relief from it, takes hold of the Africans as the President’s people punish and kill; and he must have survived because he tells the tale. Since Naipaul is writing it for him, he sees and hears everything. But his fate is determined for him offstage, by history.
The bones of Marlowe’s river steamer have gone to an American museum and the plane Salim travels in, coming back from London, flies high above the Congo, “brown, rippled and wrinkled and streaked from this height, with many channels between long, thin islands of green. The airplane shadow moved over the forest top.” He sees no hippos, no spears. He arrives to find the day of people like himself is over and only Ferdinand can rescue him from the terrors of the jail. The last time he leaves, he really is on the river boat. Then he hears shots and sees thousands of moths and flying insects in the searchlight that illuminates for a moment the towed barge full of Africans as it is cut adrift in the current.
The bugs, the drifting people are ephemera, the little community ephemeral too. Its story ends like a chapter of history: it is over. Terror and violence ruled but the story is not nervous in the way of thrillers. How rare to present such things calmly and steadily. Naipaul’s steadiness is almost unique to himself. He knows the secret that Socrates once explained but nobody could remember, how the genius of comedy is the same as that of tragedy. The excitement of the story is that we feel this all the time but cannot say, any more than could those who heard Socrates, just how it works, or why we expect it to go on and on when this story is over.
But Richard M. Moose Jr., the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, testified that American interests would not permit “walking away from Zaire” and that the United States would continue to press for reform.
V.S. Naipaul, surely one of the best writers alive, a clear-sighted man, even sad, has been for some months now in another of those former British colonies he prowls, the United States. Are we Europeans too, as the British once were, intelligent and energetic? Where is, or was, the peak of our power? We do try to express both sides of our civilization. Will we walk away, and who will take us to the cleaners? In what nursery is the budding curator of our museum?
A Bend in the River is published here in this May of 1979. Usually Naipaul publishes a book every year and a half. We must wait and see if his clear sight has fallen on any human thing among us worthy of a footnote in history.