V.S. Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River takes place in an unnamed African nation newly-liberated from the yoke of European colonialism. The recently-departed colonial power can safely be identified as France from the opening reference by the narrator to his French-made automobile (a Peugot) to the frequent references to the French language and culture. Knowing that France in real life had colonized present-day Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire during its post-independence period) and was ruled for over 30 years by autocratic and thoroughly corrupt Mobuto Sese Seko, depicted in Naipaul’s narrative by the all-powerful and highly metaphorical “Big Man,” is not difficult to isolate the precise point on a map of Africa where the story takes place. Mobuto’s rule over this expansive mineral-rich nation was as despotic and corrupt as can be imagined. Naipaul’s dictator is intended to convey in the most glaring sense the ravages left behind by the departed colonial powers and the power vacuums that were all-too-often quickly filled by the most ruthless militants available.
Among the major themes of A Bend in the River is the paradoxical relationship of the departed colonial power to those it left behind. On the one hand, European colonialists had succeeded over time in imposing their cultures and languages on the vanquished tribes and clans; on the other hand, years of built-up resentment among the indigenous peoples filled them with a need for vengeance that could only manifest itself after the folks with the biggest and most guns had left. In the following passage from Naipaul’s novel, the author depicts the destruction of a monument at the entrance to a shipping port left behind by the former colonizers:
“I was told that the monument had been put up only a few years before, almost at the end of the colonial time, to mark sixty years of the steamer service from the capital. So almost as soon as it had been put up – no doubt with speeches about a further sixty years of service – the steamer monument had been knocked down. With all the other colonial statues and monuments. . . The wish had been to get rid of the old, to wipe out the memory of the intruder. It was unnerving, the depth of that African rage, the wish to destroy regardless of the consequences.”
As Naipaul’s narrative continues, the theme of self-destructive reactions to colonialism dominated the landscape. Again, depicting the violent response to the vestiges of the colonial era, Naipual’s narrator describes the actions of rebels targeting symbols of foreign occupation:
“The rage of the rebels was like a rage against metal, machinery, wires, everything that was not of the forest and Africa. There were signs of that rage in other places as well. After the earlier war [for independence] a United Nations agency had repaired the power station and the causeway at the top of the dam. A metal plaque set on a small stone pyramid, some distance from the dam itself, recorded this fact. That plaque had been defaced . . . individual letters filed away. . . old cast-iron lamp standards from Europe had been placed as a decorative feature . . . the lamp standards had also received a battering, and again attempts had been made to file away the lettering – the name of the nineteenth-century makers in Paris.”
This rage against European colonialism, however, could not – and never did – erase the cultural influences that remained, including the use of the colonial power’s language rather than that of the indigenous tribes. Nowhere was the enduring legacy of colonialism more prevalent than in the use of language. As Naipaul’s narrator notes in one passage,
“[t]he President was talking in the African language that most people who lived along the river understood. At one time the President’s speeches were in French. But in this speech the only French words were citoyens and citoyennes (“citizens”) and they were used again and again, for musical effect, now run together into a rippling phrase, now called out separately, every syllable spaced, to create the effect of a solemn drumbeat.”
The President’s use of language in the novel is intended to convey the depths of alien influences and to emphasize the politicians need to know his audience. By appealing to the marginalized rural tribes in the languages in which they were most comfortable while interspersing French colloquialisms, the President is elevating Africa above the Europeans who once conquered it. Naipaul describes this dictator’s use of a sort of hybrid of native and colonial language as follows: “. . .while he spoke, this man who kept everybody dangling and imitated the etiquette of royalty and the graces of de Gaulle, into the lowest of the low. And that was the attraction of the African language in the President’s mouth.”
A Bend in the River is as fine an example of post-colonial literature as one is likely to find. The juxtaposition of colonial influences with the depth of hatred many of the colonized felt towards their former masters remains an enduring legacy of that bygone era. Today, once-colonized nations throughout Africa and Asia remain emotionally closer to their former colonial occupiers than to any other nation, such was the impact on indigenous cultures of European imperialism.