Salim and Yvette

Karl Miller

  • A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul
    Deutsch, 296 pp, £5.50

The discussion of V.S. Naipaul’s new novel needs to refer to two in particular of his previous fictions. The novella In a Free State depicts – more accurately, glimpses or surmises – a coup in an emergent African country: in this respect, it is like the new novel. But the novel which immediately precedes the new one, Guerrillas, stands closer to it still. In Guerrillas, which is set in the Caribbean, the description of an emergent country’s state of emergency is combined with the description of a sexual relationship between two people of different races: the rebellion glimpsed there is mysterious, cryptic, the sexual relationship is fully lit.

Guerrillas tells how an outcast, hustler and self-proclaimed revolutionary, Jimmy Ahmed, has returned from London to his native island, and has formed a commune for drop-out youths. He takes up with a wandering Englishwoman, Jane, who has come looking for action in the Third World and has found this corner of it to be benighted and becalmed. The commune runs rapidly to seed, and trouble breaks out on the island. Whoever it is that is causing the trouble – and we are never told – Jimmy is excluded from the chances it may afford to those seeking power and advantage. He is, in this sense, impotent. He has already insulted Jane sexually: now he and one of his youths kill her. Guerrillas strikes me as a powerful and accomplished work, but some readers were upset by the hostility shown towards the murdered woman, and, perhaps, by the sympathy shown towards Jimmy – the sympathy of an author noted for his sceptical attitude towards revolutionaries, who had been hostile, in print, to all of the participants in the historical events which supplied part of his plot. There may also have been readers who were led to reflect on Othello’s self-righteous murder of Desdemona, and to reflect that Shakespeare’s play expresses a view of mixed marriages which is both encouraging and discouraging.

The new novel resumes and modifies certain of these themes. Both novels see the world in colonial colours – as determined by empires, in the furtherance of which races have defeated and enslaved each other, in which they have met and married, in which a black mercenary might marry a daughter of Venice. For much of its course, the new novel takes all this for granted. It is what is likely to occur. Races insult each other, and make war, and make love, and they may mix these activities up. At the same time, the novel finds more to resist in these activities than many readers might anticipate. It is the work of a writer for whom, in successive fictions, the theme of sexual dealings between people of different races has necessitated the representation of violence. Rapes and murders occur, of course, in this area, and may have to be treated. And the theme is obviously of high consequence for the portrayal of any society where race is a trouble. The society may be symbolised by such dealings, and experienced through them. Hardship and discontent may declare themselves there, in a victim’s revenge. In addressing itself to such possibilities, however, A Bend in the River, for all its air of simplicity, is never simple. Its narrator and chief human presence is by no means straightforwardly a victim, and the difference between oppressor and oppressed can be hard to identify.

The novel is narrated by a Moslem of Indian origin, whose family have been settled on the east coast of Africa, as traders. Salim takes off on the first of a series of ‘flights’, and treks to the interior, to a country which appears to be compounded of the Congo and of Uganda, in order to earn a living from a store which he has acquired from a man whose daughter he is expected to marry one day. Reading Salim’s palm, the man points out that he is ‘faithful’. Salim can be designated a Kenya Asian: the name we give to those hard-working aliens who have been driven out of African countries in recent times, and who include the shopkeepers and merchants expropriated in Uganda by Amin. Kenya Asians are now working hard in the darkness and grime of British cities, where Patel is among the commonest names in the telephone directory.

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