Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Bend in the River: A Review

Heart of DarknessA Bend in the RiverNo writer understands the psychology of the uprooted better than V.S. Naipaul, who was directly affected by the tides of history that took his ancestors from some nondescript Indian village to the plantations of Trinidad. Struggle for assimilation and cultural conflicts are thus recurring themes in Naipaul's novels. When the master craftsman posits his rootless characters in a milieu shaped by the forces of neocolonialism, the plot gets really complicated and multifaceted.

Salim inhabits such a world of complexity, which is unpredictable, violent, confused and given to whims and caprices of the mighty. The locale is an unnamed country in Africa--which many presume to be Congo--writhing under the weight of its violent liberation from colonial rule. Salim, comes from a family of Indian descent, settled in the East Coast of Africa. He is out in search of his destiny in the war ravaged society. 

Salim's self-imposed exile takes him on a westward journey into the heart of Africa that is reminiscent of the slaves' march from central Africa to the eastern coasts in the 18th century. Like the slaves Salim is moving towards the great unknown, an area of bloody rampage, but unlike theirs, his journey is voluntary.
Colonialism and NeocolonialismThe Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (Borzoi Books)
We see the city where Salim comes to take up his business, with his alert and observant eyes. The narrator Salim is an intelligent and practical man, trying to settle down with his own entrepreneurship. He is hard working, sympathetic and judicious. But the ebb and flow of events in the fast changing post-revolution society rattles his confidence and leaves him at the mercy of the political developments. He reads the signs of things early on and takes a sensible decision to leave. When he leaves the place in a steamer, we see a land of utter chaos and hopelessness receding from his view.

Naipaul presents his views on African people and politics, their culture and mysticism through his sensitive narrator very deftly. The writer is not very optimistic about the people, who are perennially trapped in their ambivalence towards non-African or western society and culture. While on the one hand they destroy all the external trappings of the exploiters' culture, on the other hand the dictator shamelessly imitates the French ruler's symbols of power. While the western powers are labeled as exploiters, corruption in its most vicious form squeezes the society dry.

Naipaul shines as he paints the heart of darkness. 

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