In 1979, fresh out of college, I moved to West Africa, thinking I might live there for a year before returning to school, and stayed for six. I took up residence in Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast, a fast-growing, impressively sleek, and well-functioning city whose skyline reminded me of Miami’s. I soon began traveling widely on the continent, first working as a translator and then submitting freelance articles to publications in America and Europe and bit by bit making my way into journalism.
One of the things that impressed me most during those years, and has stuck with me ever since, was the sheer diversity of Africa. Within this region alone, not to speak of the entire continent, there were big, pulsing, cosmopolitan cities like Abidjan, and there were others, capitals like Ouagadougou or Lomé, with the look and feel of overgrown villages. The countries, too, seemed enormously different from one another, and even within them, the customs and language of one people could be starkly different from the next.
The ideological diversity of Africa back then was just as great. Ivory Coast was ruled smoothly and quietly by an elderly, archconservative, capitalist founding father, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, in ways that resembled Singapore, complete with a strong dash of paternalism. Each day the front page of the national newspaper carried a Confucian-sounding dictum attributed to “the old man,” as people were encouraged to call the president—some new, some oft-repeated, such as, most famously, “Peace is not a word, it is a behavior.”
Revolutionary governments, progressive or merely pretending to be, flanked Ivory Coast along three of its five borders. Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso worked substantively to advance gender equality in his society and fought deforestation as a way of combating global warming, long before these had become high-profile causes in many rich countries. Even an American ambassador from the ideologically hostile Reagan administration confessed to being impressed with the country’s low levels of corruption.
During those years, and in a subsequent decade when I returned to Abidjan to cover the region for The New York Times, I always felt a mixture of puzzlement and chagrin when hearing the commonplace observation of Western expatriates that Ivory Coast was not the “real Africa.” By this they seemed to mean that to be authentic, African countries had to be poor, violent, unstable, less than modern, or ruled crudely by a heavy-handed dictator.
It goes without saying that such dictators existed. On my first visit to Zaire, for example, I watched in amazement night after night as the evening news program of the national broadcaster opened with a montage of the country’s leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, being lowered from the sky on a throne amid glittering lights like a demigod descending from heaven. Zaire, since renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was frequently referred to as a “geological scandal” for its extraordinarily abundant mineral wealth. Those resources had reputedly enabled Mobutu—who had taken power with American assistance in 1965 after the Western-backed assassination of the country’s first postindependence leader, Patrice Lumumba, and was favored with three White House visits by Republican presidents for his ostensible anticommunism—to become one of the world’s richest men. A memorable description at the time called him “a walking bank account in a leopard-skin cap.”
My move to Africa happened to coincide with the publication in 1979 of A Bend in the River, widely viewed as one of the crowning achievements in the career of V.S. Naipaul, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001. Although he never names Zaire in the novel, it is an unmistakable depiction of the turbulent early independence era in that Central African country and of Mobutu, complete with the leopard-skin cap. In its citation, the Swedish Academy said of Naipaul, “His authority as a narrator is grounded in his memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished.”
I have returned to A Bend in the River many times in the years since it appeared, and with each reading it has seemed less tenable to me. Because novels are fiction, they are often exempted from ordinary considerations of verisimilitude. But it is well known that much of Naipaul’s fiction drew heavily upon his experiences as a traveler and especially as a prolific author of nonfiction reportage. The record of his explorations of Zaire prior to the publication of A Bend in the River, in fact, is so clear that this is not open to speculation. As I have read and reread it over the years, I have wondered whether a book that was so widely lauded just two decades ago could even be published today. This is no call for the novel, much less Naipaul, to be canceled. That I have returned to it so often may seem paradoxical, given that I find much of its content frankly appalling. But one source of fascination is precisely its increasingly dramatic dissonance with our times. The other, more classic motive for rereading a writer of Naipaul’s stature is timeless: the power of his storytelling and the lapidary quality of his prose.
The main problems with A Bend in the River are not those of accuracy or verisimilitude, of which there are plenty. The glaring, foundational flaw is its extreme essentialization of Africa and Africans—their reduction to pure, simple, almost iconic abstractions. Over and over, the novel refers to something it fancies as pure African life or to “universal African law,” such as the claim that every African must necessarily belong to a tribe. Naipaul’s conjuring of a “true Africa” echoes the assertion of a “real Africa” that expatriates once told me Ivory Coast couldn’t possibly belong to. In this rhetorical pursuit, Naipaul elevates one word to totemic status: “bush.” It is used with extraordinary persistence, turning up twice on the first page and incessantly thereafter, even as many as three or four times per page later in the novel.
“Bush” is employed in other writings by Naipaul about what was once frequently called the third world, but never more so than with reference to a supposedly atavistic Africa, where save for chiefs and politicians, at heart “everyone is a villager.” In this usage, “bush” is no mere reference to runaway tropical vegetation. Instead it seems to signify the supposedly unchanging, untamed, and premodern nature of the continent and its people. In A Bend in the River, bush is invasive; it acts like a belt, constricting every urban setting, seizing any chance to make its suffocating inroads into the town:
But more unnerving than anything else was the ruined suburb near the rapids. Valuable real estate for a while, and now bush again, common ground, according to African practice. The houses had been set alight one by one. They had been stripped—before or afterwards—only of those things that the local people needed: sheets of tin, lengths of pipe, bathtubs and sinks and lavatory bowls (impermeable vessels, useful for soaking cassava in). The big lawns and gardens had returned to bush; the streets had disappeared; vines and creepers had grown over broken, bleached walls of concrete or hollow clay brick. Here and there in the bush could still be seen the concrete shells of what had been restaurants (Saccone and Speed wines) and nightclubs. One nightclub had been called “Napoli”; the now meaningless name, painted on the concrete wall, was almost bleached away.
Sun and rain and bush had made the site look old, like the site of a dead civilization. The ruins, spreading over so many acres, seemed to speak of a final catastrophe.
This passage, and others in the same vein, help illustrate that from the moment they are no longer run by Europeans, African cities are bound for disintegration. Naipaul goes even further: life outside the bush ill suits the true nature of most Africans. “This isn’t property. This is just bush. This has always been bush,” a character named Nazruddin forewarns early on, speaking of the real estate in the very heart of the remote, inland city, a place of boom and bust, that he has sold to the novel’s narrator and main character, an independent-minded Indian Muslim in his early thirties named Salim. Just two pages later one reads: “The Africans who had abandoned the town and gone back to their villages were better off; they at least had gone back to their traditional life and were more or less self-sufficient.”
As anachronistic as these recurrent features are in Naipaul’s fictional Africa, none of this answers the question of whether a book like this could be published today, especially to such widespread praise. But what of Naipaul’s depiction of Africans themselves? A Bend in the River presents the continent’s people in three essential categories.
There is Zabeth, a trader who makes brief periodic visits to the city along the river’s eponymous bend to procure imported merchandise—pencils, razor blades, pots and pans—from Salim. Zabeth furnishes the novel with a sturdy archetype, a premodern African character who maintains shopping lists in her head rather than writing them down and keeps her cash in a small traveling case rather than entrusting it to a bank, because that is supposedly the native way. Zabeth is described as a “big woman” and something of a sorceress, with body odor so strong that it repels not only mosquitoes but other Africans, particularly importuning men. She lives a “purely African life,” we are told, but she is nonetheless sharply distinguished from other, yet more typical African women who are presented as so licentious that at the mere knock at the door they “slept with men whenever they were asked.”
Another African character who serves as an archetype is a young man named Metty. Depicted as deeply childlike and eagerly servile, he receives somewhat fuller treatment than Zabeth. He is “always offering to help, and never doing a quarter of what he promised.”
Metty is part of another motif that frequently recurs in A Bend in the River and constitutes the most offensive material of all. He is a former servant of Salim’s family and a descendant of enslaved people once owned outright by them. With little rhetorical variation, Naipaul writes that Africans broadly prefer enslavement to being free. They were, for example, “positively anxious to step into the boats” that bore them off across oceans in chains toward enslavement. With their ready smiles, “vacant, dog-like expression[s],” and eagerness to be of help, Africans are described as literally “insisting on their slave status.” “Slave peoples,” he writes later, “are physically wretched, half-men in everything except in their capacity to breed the next generation.” Their behavior toward their masters is like “a child’s clinging.” They possess “the brightness and gaiety of the servant who knows that he will be looked after, that others will decide for him.” And they are lost and confused when cast outside of dependent roles.
With material of this nature, Naipaul is reaching back to one of the most deeply rooted racist fantasies of the Western past: the happy slave. I find it quite remarkable that this drew so little response at the time of its publication from prominent critics who lauded the novel for its supposedly brave truth-telling.
The third important African character type is represented by Zabeth’s son, Ferdinand, whom she places under Salim’s wary guardianship. Although presented as traditional, Zabeth nonetheless wants a better life for Ferdinand and asks Salim to watch over him while he attends a boarding school near the city at the river’s bend, telling Salim to feel free to beat him in order to keep him in line. Ferdinand had been raised by a father who worked in distant mining towns, making the young man familiar with both city life and the ways of foreigners, and therefore not inclined to feel any kind of complex around them. Thus tension arises with Salim from their first encounter, when Ferdinand fails to go down on one knee before the older man, his assigned new patron, in what is described as a traditional gesture of “reverence” and “custom of the bush.” “Now I thought: There’s going to be trouble here,” Salim notes.
The basis of this trouble is classic Naipaul: a dark-skinned man from a poor country is acquiring some education, but merely enough to stoke his indignation and wrath about his subordinate place in the world. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The strong and “simplified” features of Ferdinand’s face remind Salim—whom many critics have called a fictional voice for Naipaul’s sensibilities, minus his intellectualism—of “the starting point of certain kinds of African masks.” Ferdinand becomes full of anger and injury at the hands of the wider world and of whites. His politics grow militant and self-righteous, and he takes on airs, earning mockery and fear from the author and his characters. In one exchange, Ferdinand asks Salim what he thinks of the future of Africa, but Salim avoids answering by turning the question back on him:
Ferdinand could only tell me that the world outside was going down and Africa was rising. When I asked in what way the world outside was going down, he couldn’t say. And when I pushed him past the stage where he could repeat bits of what he had heard at the lycée, I found that the ideas of the school discussion had in his mind become jumbled and simplified. Ideas of the past were confused with ideas of the present.
The thought of a school “full of Ferdinands” makes Salim nervous, and by now readers surely know there will be trouble. Those who are familiar with Naipaul’s personal views, though, may know something more: his own answer to the question about Africa that Salim posed to Ferdinand. “What is the future, in Africa?” Elizabeth Hardwick asked Naipaul in an interview for The New York Times that appeared the year the book was published, writing that she was “thinking of the Africa in A Bend in the River.” “Africa has no future,” Naipaul replied tersely.
In the novel’s backstory, Salim has set off alone by car, determined to uproot himself from the stultifying traditions of his own community, long established on the continent’s east coast, and to build a new life as a storekeeper in the distant interior in the city at the bend of a great river. This is an obvious stand-in for Kisangani, formerly Stanleyville, one of the largest cities in the former Zaire. The choice of destinations is significant in that it creates a manifest parallel to the riverboat journey of Joseph Conrad’s hero, Marlow, in Heart of Darkness (1899). The city at the bend of the Congo River in this famous novella is the furthest navigable point from the waterway’s mouth and metaphorically the furthest practical distance from civilization itself.
Naipaul spring-loads the tension in the story of this journey by sharing Salim’s intimations of grave doubts about his decision even before arriving at his destination:
As I got deeper into Africa—the scrub, the desert, the rocky climb up to the mountains, the lakes, the rain in the afternoons, the mud, and then, on the other, wetter side of the mountains, the fern forests and the gorilla forests—as I got deeper I thought: But this is madness. I am going in the wrong direction. There can’t be a new life at the end of this.
In Heart of Darkness, the narrator arrives to discover that primitive “natives” worship a white man, Kurtz, as their leader. Salim, by contrast, arrives at the continent’s inner reaches not long after independence, which was followed by a civil war, vaguely averred atrocities against whites, and the rise of a charismatic African dictator who enjoys a personality cult and has megalomaniacal fantasies about joining the modern world by building grandiose projects.
The coast that Salim has left behind isn’t “real” Africa, we are told, because of centuries of intermixing, especially between Blacks and Arab trading communities. Naipaul has little regard for the latter: “The Arabian energy that had pushed them into Africa had died down at its source, and their power was like the light of a star that travels on after the star itself has become dead.” He also judges Indians on the continent harshly. With the independence wave, Africa was in the throes of a momentous transformation: “Because they could assess themselves, the Europeans were better equipped to cope with the changes than we were…. We continued to live as we had always done, blindly.”
This form of self-awareness attributed to Europeans inspires in Salim a kind of envy. In a remarkable passage, he attributes it to the fact that
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…and they got both the slaves and the statues.
In one of his many scornful comments about Africans, the narrator makes a similar judgment about their supposed lack of a faculty for self-assessment: “They were like people who didn’t know their own mind.” What distinguishes the novel’s treatment of Indians and Africans most, though, is the reserve of sympathy it holds for the former. Before he departs from the coast, Salim surveys the walled compound of an Indian acquaintance, seemingly doomed, and a feeling of futility washes over him. In the novel, Asians are being dispossessed here and there in the region, just as in real life, most dramatically, the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin summarily announced fifty years ago that his country’s 50,000-strong community of Indians would be given ninety days to leave the country.1
“Two generations had built what I saw; and I mourned for that lost labour,” Salim says. Yet nowhere in a novel that is set in, of all places, a stand-in for Congo—where under Belgian rule brutal forced labor to grow rubber and cull ivory is estimated to have killed 10 million people—does any such sentiment of wasted labor, or even mere recording of fact, enter the narrative.
This points to one of the novel’s great failings. In a review that appeared in The New York Times shortly after its publication, the late critic Irving Howe hailed Naipaul for being “free of any romantic moonshine about the moral charms of primitives or the glories of blood-stained dictators.” Twenty-two years later, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize, The Wall Street Journal’s verdict, published under the headline “Our Conrad,” was much the same: “Because Mr. Naipaul has no patience with left-wing illusions about the ‘developing world,’ he refuses to traffic in stereotypes about the locals.”
But had Naipaul ever truly seen the “locals” in A Bend in the River, or ever stopped projecting a Conradian sense of unadulterated primitivism upon them? Nothing could be less certain. The key to getting beyond caricature of Africans lies within the novel itself, but it is never grasped by the author, much less used to any effect. Over and over Naipaul asks why Africans are angry and why, moreover, they seem so ardent about destroying the old order, in this case built during many decades of European depredation and, before that, of an Arab-run slave trade. This requires a special, perhaps even willful cluelessness. One needn’t go far back in time, not even to King Leopold of Belgium’s personal dominion over the Congo and the horrors of the rubber trade, to understand the anger of Africans. The more recent colonial period of the mid-twentieth century, which Naipaul fondly invokes, amply suffices.
Talking about Ferdinand’s father, Naipaul writes, “As a trader, he had traveled about the country during the miraculous peace of the colonial time, when men could, if they wished, pay little attention to tribal boundaries.” This stunning bit of historical obliviousness is echoed in an essay Naipaul wrote in these pages about a trip to Zaire that inspired much of the novel’s material.2 In it, as he retraces Conrad’s journey on a Congo River ferry, he laments the demise of service standards, especially in the first-class cabin, where light bulbs are missing and the air-conditioning unit is balky.
Here any sense of what colonialism in Africa was for and whom it served economically is completely absent, as are its repugnant moral implications. Sure, Africans needn’t have paid attention to tribal boundaries in the Belgian Congo, except for the biggest one of all, the color line enforced in apartheid-like terms—as in many of Europe’s African colonies—between whites and blacks. So the ride must indeed have been grand on riverboats back then. Except for very few favored Africans armed with special passes, the so-called évolués, first-class cabins were reserved for whites.
Naipaul was fortunate to have had A Bend in the River published in the age of Reaganesque scorn for Africa, a time when few in the United States and much of Western Europe wanted to know anything about the continent except whether its rulers were on “our side” in the cold war, as was Mobutu, with all his cultishness and corruption. Otherwise this was an era of impatience with Africans. After less than two decades of independence, many Western intellectuals could come up with no better question than: Was there something congenitally wrong with them that could explain why their continent was so afflicted with poverty and misrule?
It occurred to few in the mainstream to inquire whether the historical record of Western exploitation or an international economy structurally hostile to Africa had anything to do with the continent’s fortunes. The Belgians ruled the Congo into the late 1950s firmly believing, ostrich-like, that they could hold on to their lucrative colony for decades more, and they undertook few measures to prepare the Congolese for self-rule. As the historian Frederick Cooper has written, “There was no effort to provide post-primary education or to give Africans entrée into professional activities, the civil service, or local politics.” The Belgians, like Naipaul, dreaded classrooms full of Ferdinands. The first state university did not open in Congo until 1956, four years before independence. The colonizers, in Cooper’s words, were “vigorously holding on to political power and appropriating economic gains for a tiny fraction of the population,” which overwhelmingly meant white settlers and Belgians back home.
A Bend in the River alludes vaguely to, and the essay Naipaul wrote about his Congo travels speaks explicitly about, the Simba Rebellion, which swept the central Congo region in early 1964. It is the backdrop of the novel, which scarcely says anything about its historical origins. In the essay, Naipaul says of the leader of the rebellion that he was a former minister of education named Pierre Mulele, without mentioning what government he served. “What did Mulele want?” Naipaul asks, showing no sign of wanting to understand the background. He returns several times to the Simba Rebellion in the novel, never naming it. In A Bend in the River, he writes, “It was unnerving, the depth of that African rage, the wish to destroy, regardless of the consequences.”
Whatever his faults, Mulele was loyal to Patrice Lumumba, the progressive prime minister of Congo’s first government, who in 1961 had been quickly overthrown and executed with Belgian and American connivance. Amid great violence, Mobutu put down the rebellion with the help of troop airlifts and white mercenaries supplied by those two powers, and upon capturing Mulele in 1968 had him tortured and killed. His eyes were ripped from their sockets, his genitals mutilated, and his limbs amputated, all in public, while he was still alive.
Writers of fiction deserve extra credit for anticipating the future, which is surely no requirement of their art. On this score as well, however, A Bend in the River is a dismal performance. Naipaul seems only able to imagine a world in which what he calls “the mighty civilization of Europe” remains ascendant and unchallenged—the custodian of the presumed universal. It is the West, and pretty much the West alone, that is invested with intention and high-level agency, which is strange for a book written at a time when Japan was widely imagined to be on the verge of global economic dominance. Today, of course, it is China that challenges the United States and the West on nearly every front. Of East Asians, the most Naipaul can muster is this phrase: “They secretly prefer factories to their family life.”
It is on the topic of Africans, though, that his imagination failed him most. They seemed to him incapable of inhabiting the modern present together with the rest of humanity, and as he said, they had no future. I spent time in the city at the bend in the river, Kisangani, during a period of intense civil warfare in the late 1990s, sleeping on bare ground for lack of a functioning hotel. Today this same city, scene of other past calamities, is gobbling up the “bush” and on track to have 1.9 million residents by the end of this decade, according to the United Nations. By 2100, other studies project, Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, will be the second-largest city in the world, with 83 million people.
In fact, the growth of the human population in this dawning age will be overwhelmingly concentrated in Africa, whose numbers will greatly outstrip China’s and India’s combined. In places like coastal West Africa, where some of the world’s fastest-growing cities—such as Lagos, Accra, and Abidjan—are strung closely together and will constitute a region of half a billion people within a stretch of six hundred miles, urbanization like this will come to define not only the present but, to an extent that Naipaul seemed ill-equipped to accept, our human future.