Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A World That Has Always Existed

Poetry works on a different level to the novel, and goes much further. The novel accepts the everyday; it narrates it. - Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity
As part of my ongoing effort to clear out my personal library, I'm currently reading V. S. Naipaul's novel A Bend in the River. Thus far it's been an uneasy read (I've interrupted it twice to read other perfectly fine if inessential books of fiction). Where once I would have simply read the novel without complication, enjoyed the smoothness of his prose, now I'm suspicious, I feel on guard. He's a prickly character, of course, a controversial public figure, often given to making reactionary remarks. And since his books are about places in the world that I've never been to and know relatively little about, I'm wary of the world he narrates. To a large extent, I'm in a position to take his word for it, which is a big part of my unease. His novels (and travel writing, I'd imagine) seem to play a certain role in critically representing parts of the world for a Western audience, telling parts of that audience what it wants to hear about the scary other. At least that's the sense I get from reading some limited criticism about his work. I'm very wary of having Africa narrated to me in this way, and it makes me think about who such books are for.

A Bend in the River is just the third of Naipaul's books for me, after A House for Mr. Biswas and The Enigma of Arrival. The latter is one of my favorite novels, and it strikes me as nothing like the other two. In that book, the narrator is relating, with much uncertainty, those events and thoughts which ultimately resulted him becoming a writer and the person he is. It is altogether wonderful. It is writing, though it's unclear how much of a novel it really is. A House for Mr. Biswas was a kind of sprawling family drama, but perhaps since the story seems closer to Naipaul, it's not so much of a problem (though, admittedly, when I read it I was reading with somewhat different eyes; perhaps a re-read would reveal then-unnoticed issues). Salim, the narrator of A Bend in the River, is there for all sorts of observations about Africa, Africans, modernity, history, politics and political independence, education, and so on. Were the book more fanciful, I wouldn't feel as though I were having some aspect of the real world narrated to me, but it reads like a report, though a smooth one. I feel considerable less wary when Salim simply talks about himself and his own problems; the writing is more interesting in such passages, too. Already halfway through the novel, were I able to discern a plot or point, other than to represent an Africa for the reader, perhaps then I'd feel less overall unease.
Naipaul is Conrad's heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings. His authority as a narrator is grounded in his memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished. - The Swedish Academy, on announcing V.S. Naipaul the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature
Salim's account isn't, on the surface, obviously biased one way or another. It's not as though, at least so far, the novel reads as a statement against African independence, though indeed there are complications to be considered. The Swedish Academy is not wrong to note that Naipaul is attentive, here anyway, to what colonial empires "do to human beings", or to "what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished". That's here, and not without sympathy. It is interesting, however, that the Academy highlights "[h]is authority as a narrator" in light of this attention. As if writing should necessarily be authoritative. Again, as if a report.

I'm reminded, as I often am, of Gabriel Josipovici and his arguments about modernism. In the chapter, "It Took Talent To Lead Art That Far Astray" in his book What Ever Happened to Modernism? (my review), he discusses contemporary writers who "are concerned with telling a story and telling it in such a way as to make readers feel that they are not reading about a world that has been freshly made but about one that has always existed." One of the passages he provides happens to be from Naipaul's somewhat earlier novel, Guerrillas (1976; A Bend in the River was published in 1979). Now, to be fair, I don't think quoting individual paragraphs out of context, as Josipovici does in that chapter, is a terribly illuminating maneuver (and in the event, it proved to be part of an unfortunate distraction, for many readers, from the book's basic argument), and I will have more to say about that in another post, but the point he's trying to make is an important one, and relevant to my point here. Naipaul's Africa, in A Bend in the River, is narrated as though it has always existed, which encourages us to let it all too easily stand in for the real Africa. This is further exacerbated by the fact that Salim narrates looking back on events, from a seemingly distant, settled future. Yes, Salim observes and reports changes that have happened, but the world he narrates is there, ready, waiting for consumption.


Unknown said...

I've read several of Naipaul's travel books, but none of his fiction. They have a point of view, and generally not a kind one. He sees injustice and pettiness both in the colonizers and in the colonized. Still, I never really doubted what he saw. Injustice and pettiness are common everywhere, as far as I can tell.

Generally, there are plenty of books that will offer apologetics for other cultures. They're not (usually) wrong either. Why would other societies be less complex and multifaceted than ours?

Richard said...


I'm curious, did I say anything to suggest I thought otherwise?