Bankruptcy and Revolt

A Bend in the River

by V.S. Naipaul
Knopf, 288 pp., $8.95

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…

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