Should a reader come first to the work of V. S. Naipaul through his fictional A Bend in the River, it might prove helpful to identify the author’s base of attitude as reflected in the titles of his nonfiction works. These titles signify the author’s profound sense of dislocation, of being bereft: India: A Wounded Civilization, The Overcrowded Barracoon, The Loss of El Dorado, The Middle Passage, and An Area of Darkness.
Naipaul is uniquely equipped to reflect upon bereavement. Indian by blood, Trinidadian by birth, Briton through his choice of home, and an exile through his experience and spirit, Naipaul is concerned with the loss of old dreams and old definitions—the loss of what formerly seemed to be guiding verities. A man of no single nation, his allegiances held in abeyance, he casts a dark and perceptively ironic eye on his varied worlds. He sees with awful clarity the doddering old and the brutally new. For him, the old world is a dream only vaguely, though poignantly recalled. Through his vision, the contemporary world, though irresistibly real, emerges as either dusty and stupidly dull, filled with the failure of old European concepts, or horrifyingly cruel and confused, lacking any consistent, workable ideals. His psychological landscape is as bare and as existentially frightening as any created by Albert Camus, for example, or by Paul Bowles.
A novel, therefore, set in an emerging country deep in the interior of Africa provides Naipaul with a perfectly staged arena for his characters to blunder around in while trying to understand their purpose and their relationships with one another. Beneath Naipaul’s uncompromising stare, Africa is no longer Conrad’s romantic and mysterious “heart of darkness”; rather, it is a blindingly illuminated, demystified landscape of an immense, relentless, and jungled slum. Characterized equally by chance beauty and brutality, the landscape is as passive as a lizard in the sun, unblinking in the face of murder, greed, waste, and futility. Caught in this landscape’s strange sterility, victimized randomly by gang warfare and by pointless fertility and the profligacy of nature, Naipaul’s characters do not move themselves. Bereft of volition, they are moved only by chance events, by perverted or misperceived old dreams, by their era’s lack of a sense of either the past or the future.
For Naipaul’s characters, historically linear constructs such as “the future” and “the past” have been irrevocably lost or have become nightmares. For these people all that is left is a juiceless twentieth century version of Mister Kurtz’s earlier “horror” to be passively endured. Though there are villainous acts in this novel, significantly, there are no true villains. Conversely, there appears absolutely no possibility for the heroic; the time and the place undercut any intended extreme acts. One moment Salim, the novel’s narrator, muses that he is tired of submitting to Fate; he dreams of being in charge. The next moment he acknowledges emptily the fact that a force he calls a “tide of history,” forgotten by his contemporaries and found only in books by Europeans he has yet to read, has already swept over him. Now he can only wait passively for another tide of history—this time, perhaps, to wash him away.
Salim tells his story in retrospect, seeming stolidly unconscious of his precarious position, at the time of the telling, as a chance survivor of another of history’s convulsive tides. His first comment, his astonishingly arrogant observation that “the world is what it is,” and that men who are—who allow themselves to be—nothing, do not belong in it, is consistently belied by his own impotent behavior in the rest of the narrative. All his actions are merely allowed by caprice. None of them is productive, for him or anyone else. At the novel’s conclusion, for example, he escapes by sheer chance the coming warfare, which would have surely included his extermination. Although Salim sees much, he clearly fails to see that Fate has deigned his survival. He has not been anything through his own force. He cannot see that when the time is right, when Fate...
(The entire section is 1719 words.)