In response to:

Naipaul’s Unreal Africa from the December 22, 2022 issue

To the Editors:

Howard French criticizes V.S. Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River [“Naipaul’s Unreal Africa,” NYR, December 22, 2022] for its “essentialization” of Africa, which he claims is “deeply rooted [in] racist fantasies of the Western past.” He also alleges that Salim, the novel’s prejudiced narrator, is a “fictional voice for Naipaul’s sensibilities.” Such judgments are the regrettable consequence of French’s inattention to the novel’s use of irony. Because he focuses exclusively on the content of A Bend in the River, French misses the crucial fact that Salim is an unreliable narrator whose moral and practical failings are cruelly exposed in the concluding chapters. Put another way: the novel begins with Salim making disparaging remarks about Africans; it ends with him being rescued from ruin by a principled African government official whom Salim had once disdained.

Salim’s prejudices do not necessarily mirror those of Naipaul. Instead, they act as a novelistic device—a prism to bring disparate perspectives into view, and a rounded, if flawed, imaginative point of entry into the fractured colonized society. Thus, when Naipaul describes Salim’s habit of belittling Africans, he pointedly notes that this practice can be traced to Salim’s upbringing in the unnamed Arab-African coastal town where his slave-owning, Indian-Muslim merchant family maintained their distance from other local communities. Although the reader is required to see things through Salim’s eyes, they are not necessarily expected to agree with his views.

Naipaul’s techniques as a writer of realist fiction should not be labeled racist because they do not serve the laudable goal of generating uplifting stories of decolonization. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that French ignores those moments in which a more hopeful postcolonial African future is prefigured by A Bend in the River. French observes that in an early scene Salim dismisses the young African student Ferdinand as a disgruntled troublemaker, and he takes this as confirmation of Naipaul’s belief that educated African youths are only capable of destructive behavior. However, French can sustain this position only by suppressing the inconvenient fact that Ferdinand confounds Salim by developing into a thoughtful and courageous government official in the years that follow. French also ignores the clues indicating Salim’s secret envy of Ferdinand, whose virtues come to symbolize the immense potential of the newly independent African country. “I felt that he was about to race ahead of me in knowledge,” Salim bitterly admits, “and enter realms I would never enter.” This is hardly the African reduced to a “pure, simple, almost iconic” abstraction, as French alleges.

Ferdinand may have been based on a group of students who impressed Naipaul when he visited the Congo in 1971, eight years before the publication of A Bend in the River. An entry in Naipaul’s nonfictional A Congo Diary describes “the intelligence of the students” in a Kinshasa college with whom he had spent an afternoon: “So here was another feeling about Africa: that the individual, awakening to history, discovering injustice and the past, discovering ideas, was not supported by his society.”

Far from being a portrait of Africans as primitive or unchanging, Bend explores the mixed and uneven ways in which the historical transition to modernity unfolds in a decolonizing context. It tells this story through the experiences of individuals born in colonized societies that were shaped by inequality and ethnic division. French denounces such a portrayal as racist because he, a progressive American, is offended by Naipaul’s failure to include modernizing images of the continent, including African cities that “look like Miami.” But French should not assume that this is the only way to approach Naipaul’s work in the global twenty-first century. Non-Western readers born in fractured postcolonial contexts, myself included, continue to draw insight into their own troubled formations from A Bend in the River.

Twice in his essay, French archly wonders if a novel like A Bend in the River “could…be published today.” (A similar thing could be said of The Satanic Verses). He assures his readers that he does not wish to “cancel” Naipaul or his novel, but there can be no doubt of the correct response to his rhetorical question. Is it even possible to give the “wrong” answer, that is, defend the significance and value of A Bend in the River without being suspected of condoning racism in literature? Yes, for the simple reason that even intelligent readers like French can fail to grasp the nuance and complexity of the novel, allowing righteousness to blind them to the need for close reading.

Sanjay Krishnan
Department of English
Boston University
Boston, Massachusetts

Howard W. French replies:

Sanjay Krishnan claims that I have misread V.S. Naipaul’s scornful and dismissive characterizations of Africa and Africans due to my “inattention” to the novelist’s use of irony. He further claims that I am mistaken to attribute the prejudices toward Africans manifest through the voice of Salim, the main character of A Bend in the River, to Naipaul himself. Naipaul’s Salim, we are told, is an “unreliable narrator,” which is an all too convenient way to say that we cannot take his many castigating judgments to be racist or hurtful.

As I made clear in my essay, I have read the novel many times over the years. What is more, I have read everything in Naipaul’s oeuvre that touches upon Africa, and most everything that he wrote about the Caribbean as well. This has left me with an overwhelming impression of him as a man who took a dim and often hostile view of Black people and of their capacity to make meaningful contributions to human civilization. As a Naipaul expert, Professor Krishnan will know that over the years, a great many other close readers of this undoubtedly gifted novelist and essayist have come away from his work with similar conclusions, and the reasons for this are hardly obscure.

In his 1962 book about his native Trinidad and the broader Caribbean, for example, Naipaul wrote, “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.” How about, say, the Haitian Revolution, which defeated in turn the greatest imperial armies of its era, Napoleon’s France, Spain, Britain, and France yet again, making it possible for the United States to acquire the Louisiana territory from Paris and double in size, and rendering slavery and racial discrimination illegal on Haitian soil in a constitution created by Black people in 1805, well ahead of any such achievement by a European nation or, of course, the United States?

About a subsequent, African-based fiction, In a Free State, Naipaul himself stated in an interview that he began the book “with a great hatred of everyone, of the entire continent [of Africa].”* Should we take the author at his word, or was this another case of simply being “unreliable”?

A central figure in that same novel, a white, English character named Linda, speaks over and over of her loathing of Africa and of Africans, whom she regards as irredeemably base and corrupt. She tells another white character, “You should either stay away, or you should go among them with a whip in your hand. Anything in between is ridiculous.” As the critic Dorsía Smith has pointed out, this neatly echoes Naipaul’s comments about Africans in his correspondence with his fellow novelist Paul Theroux: “You either stayed away from the continent, or you go there and discipline the savages.” Reading this, would Professor Krishnan still maintain that it is so naive or inappropriate to see Naipaul’s own attitudes in the thoughts attributed to many of his main characters?

As for my own thoughts, which the writer professes to understand, I must offer a correction. I have never believed that this novel or any other Naipaul work should be canceled. My question about whether it could be published today had more to do with changes in the nature of literary and cultural criticism since the time Bend was published—changes that I think are by and large healthy and should not be written off as merely bowing to progressives, as Professor Krishnan has characterized me as doing.

How could it be, for instance, that almost no mainstream review of this novel pointed out that saying Africans were eager to jump into the ships of slave traders was objectionable and not remotely true? How could it be that no critics found deeply troublesome the blanket statement that African women are so loose that all one need do is show up at their doors to sleep with them? I want to believe that we have come some way in our cultural sensitivity since then, but perhaps I am wrong.

If space allowed, there are a great many other things that I would take issue with in Professor Krishnan’s letter, but I will close with this. He correctly states that I am offended by Naipaul’s “failure to include modernizing images of the continent, including African cities that ‘look like Miami.’” In “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals,” Edward W. Said wrote of how the technique of certain writers involves “the invidious disfiguring, dismembering, and disremembering of significant historical experiences,” as their descriptions and characterizations flatten and demean the worlds of the weak and poor. I believe that Naipaul’s fictions involving Africa serve as a prime exhibit, which is precisely why I delved into the background of Congo’s Simba Rebellion, which goes unmentioned in A Bend in the River.

But there is more. As a young man, I was a member of a small circle of foreigners whom Naipaul solicited as cultural informants in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the Miami-like city mentioned in my essay that Naipaul spent time in and wrote about in the early 1980s. From this experience, and not just from reading him, I know just how persistently Naipaul sought out introductions to Africans or stories about them that could confirm his low estimate of them as superstitious and premodern people from half-made societies without histories or futures.