Nazruddin, who had sold me the shop cheap, didn't think I would have it easy when I took over. The country, like others in Africa, had had its troubles after independence. The town in the interior, at the bend of the great river, had almost ceased to exist; and Nazruddin said I would have to start from the beginning.
The town, the river, even the country that make up the setting of V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River all go unnamed. They're somewhere on the eastern coast of Africa, we might intuit, because Naipaul's narrator is an ethnically Indian Muslim who has grown up on the coast of the Indian Ocean before moving into the interior. The narrator, Salim, retreats into the "bush" because he can't bear the burden of his family and community at the coast, which he feels are trapped in a crumbling social world whose coming collapse they cannot recognize. He moves to the bush, buying a small shop in a remote town, because he sees what many see in Africa proper: not quite a nullity, but a ruined place; a place that can only begin again, like him. It is a place to "start from the beginning."
But the Africa of A Bend in the River isn't exactly well suited for rebirth. Like Salim, it remains haunted by colonialism, of the European avatars who have abandoned it and who still come back, time and time again, to remake Africa in their own image. Naipaul, as many writers noted after his death in 2018, might have been the greatest writer of postcolonial insecurity, that feeling that the postcolonial world will never catch up to, or free itself from, the colonial powers who have retreated from it. Africa, like Naipaul's Trinidad, is a place that exists in Europe's long shadow. Into the vacuum the colonial powers have left, multitudes flow: speculators, like Salim, but also white academics, rebel militias, and strongmen like the president only referred to as "The Big Man," whose dream of a new Africa births empty concrete suburbs and bloody violence.
As much as I enjoyed A Bend in the River, I found myself yearning for the less aware, more irony-laden protagonists of books like Miguel Street and A House for Mr. Biswas, whose limited understanding of their communities, and their place in them, reflects, for Naipaul, the stunting affects of the postcolonial age. Salim, by contrast, may not always know how to navigate the complexities of his social situation--how, exactly, is he meant to "look after" the young student entrusted to him by one of the marchandes who come in from the deep bush to trade?--but he's typically aware of what the complexities are. Even intelligence and awareness, Naipaul shows, may not be enough to protect you (and sure enough, eventually Salim's shop is "nationalized" by the Big Man and given to an ethnically African "citizen" who has no idea how to run it).
Salim is so aware of himself that I was surprised by the moment when, in a pique of violence, he begins to hit the white European woman with whom he's been having an affair:
This time she was given no chance to reply. She was hit so hard and so often about the face, even through raised, protected arms, that she staggered back and allowed herself to fall on the floor. I used my foot on her then, doing that for the sake of the beauty of her shoes, her ankles, the skirt I had watched her raise, the hump of her hip.
This is an incredibly difficult passage to read, not least because Naipaul was notoriously cruel to the women in his own life. But it's a bravura piece of writing, because suddenly the stunted postcolonial subject emerges from Salim, where I had least been expecting it. It comes out in the passive voice ("She was hit so hard and often"--by whom?) and the vague diction (how does he "use" his foot exactly?"). Salim's resentment, his understanding of his own diminished position in the world, are at the root of both his infatuation with this woman, Yvette, and his violence toward her.
The most insightful moments of the book come when the disillusioned Salim flies on a whim to London to visit an old friend and escape the ruin of his relationship with Yvette. What he sees there is not the glittering civilization that is Africa's foil, but a neighborhood of African-Indian expats who have carried their social positions with them. What he learns is that the postcolonial world isn't just in Africa; it's everwhere.