In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Salim and YvetteKarl Miller
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
A Bend in the River 
by V.S. Naipaul.
Deutsch, 296 pp., £5.50
Show More
Show More

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.

Salim is bound by certain of the rules and assumptions of kinship. His kin are entrepreneurs, a wandering bourgeoisie: they have known what it is to be strangers in tight corners, as he himself is a stranger in this tight African town. At the same time, he has wandered some distance from his kin, in spirit. So he is both doubly an outcast and no outcast at all. Unlike many of the towns through which he has bribed his way in his Peugeot from the coast, this one isn’t ‘full of blood’. But it is between coups, or unrests, and has lately been smashed and looted. It is the sort of place which will always revive and rebuild, and in such a place Salim’s part is to make good, carry on. The country, formerly a colony, now ‘independent’, is controlled by a black ‘big man’ in the capital down-river. An atavistic, tribal, magical resistance spreads about the bush: starveling rebels are hunted by an army, but magic bends the army’s guns. There is none of the mystification which can be attributed to the account of the troubles in Guerrillas: what we get is the mysterious politics of forest and township as observed by an outsider, by an African Asian who understands a good deal of what is going on. Salim buries his valuables – from another point of view, his ill-gotten gains – and an ominous silence descends on the town:

Sometimes I thought I could hear the noise of the rapids. It was the eternal noise at that bend in the river, but on a normal day it couldn’t be heard here. Now it seemed to come and go on the wind. At midday, when we shut the shop for lunch, and I drove through the streets, it was only the river, glittering in the hard light, that seemed alive. No dugouts, though; only the water hyacinths travelling up from the south, and floating away to the west, clump after clump, with the thick-stalked lilac flowers like masts.

Outside the town, a polytechnic and seminar centre has been planted by Presidential fiat. It is headed by the big man’s white man, the Belgian scholar Raymond, who has lost favour with his patron and is sinking into ceremonies of high-placed sagacity. Salim has an affair with the white man’s white woman, his stylish wife Yvette: radical chic persuades him that he ‘never wanted to be ordinary again’. Hitherto a shameful brothel man, Salim is uplifted by their meetings in his flat: ‘My wish for an adventure with Yvette was a wish to be taken up to the skies.’

Blood flows within the town; Raymond’s work on a collection of the President’s speeches, which could restore him to favour, languishes. Presently the affair ends in insult: Salim beats Yvette and spits on her, and flies to London, where he gets to know his intended bride. When he returns to the town, he is arrested, but is set free by Ferdinand, an African promoted from the bush whose patron he has once been. Salim makes good his escape on the steamer – bound, we may feel, for his bride. The family slave boy, Metty (the name means half-caste), who had come to live with him, is firmly left behind. Salim is now homeless in the sense that he has shed an old tendency to nostalgia: ‘that idea of going home, of leaving, the idea of the other place’, he recognises as weakening and destructive. This feeling is added to a previous illumination, to a stoicism which believes in ‘the unity of experience and the illusion of pain’.

Salim tells Salim’s story. It is not Naipaul’s; it does not constitute the author’s testament or confession on the subject of race relations and the rest of it. The novel rather harshly signals a separation between author and narrator with its very first sentence: ‘The World is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.’ An early passage separates this man, who does not want to be nothing, from the trading elders of his family – pessimists who could take risks, and were consoled by their religion:

I could never rise so high. My own pessimism, my insecurity, was a more terrestrial affair. I was without the religious sense of my family. The insecurity I felt was due to my lack of true religion, and was like the small change of the exalted pessimism of our faith, the pessimism that can drive men on to do wonders. It was the price for my more materialist attitude, my seeking to occupy the middle ground, between absorption in life and soaring above the cares of the earth.

Elsewhere Salim separates himself from the doers and makers of the big world beyond him, of whom it is said: ‘They’re making cars that will run on water.’ Such people are ‘impartial, up in the clouds, like good gods’. The men in the bush are watched by gods who are barely a jump above their heads: these white gods are more remote. Salim reads about their doings in his magazines of popular science, and in letting Ferdinand into the secret of his interests, he feels he is revealing his ‘true self’. But if his ‘true nature’ is to be romantically on the rise, and to have ‘ideas’, it is also his nature to occupy the middle ground. It isn’t lost on him that his reading matter – popular science, pornography – is ‘junk’. For much of the time, he is the achiever who tries for a reasonable percentage return.

Salim presents himself in a light which requires the reader to be told that, although he himself has been making good, he is grieved, or affects to be, by the discovery that the slavish Metty has been getting on: ‘You’ve been very much getting on as though you’re your own man.’ Their relationship has tenderness in it, and treachery. Metty betrays his master and is then left in the lurch, predicting a future which the novel does not lead us to discount: ‘They’re going to kill and kill.’ Metty is a misfit, as Golding’s Matty is, in another new novel. English fiction loves such people; it never tires of the lurch.

Salim’s outlook incorporates a version of that of his friend Indar, who teaches in the polytechnic for a while, and lends himself to the philanthropic white-liberal cultivation of the African experience, where some of the best comedy in the book is located. At one point Indar recounts his struggles and illuminations. ‘Raised’ from the ruck, originally, by his family’s wealth, he doesn’t want to ‘sink’, and rejects ‘the idea of defeat’ that prevails in the Third World:

I’m tired of being on the losing side. I don’t want to pass. I know exactly who I am and where I stand in the world. But now I want to win and win and win.

Salim, too, wants to win, and his affair with Yvette is a victory: ‘All my energy and mind were devoted to that new end of winning the person.’ In possessing her, he is both taken out of, and placed in possession of, himself: ‘She gave me the idea of my manliness I had grown to need.’ When the friendship begins to fail, he says: ‘What she drew out of me remained extraordinary to me.’ The affair seems to him to belong to the town, to have no future, and they are parted by the fact that the town has come under fear and hazard. He finds himself ‘considering the idea of flight’, and the idea of defeat: ‘I suppose that, thinking of my own harassment and Raymond’s defeat, I had begun to consider Yvette a defeated person as well, trapped in the town, as sick of herself and the wasting asset of her body as I was sick of myself and my anxieties.’ But the fit of jealousy in which he beats her means something else, or it means that and something more. What it means is not specified, but this jealousy may be felt to be like Othello’s in having more to do with difference of race, and with the jealousies of race, than the jealous man, or than the work he belongs to, seems disposed to state.

Three​ of literature’s myths underlie the narrative. They are myths of the foreign woman, which bring together achievement and betrayal, achievement and desertion. Of the stories I have in mind, Othello and Desdemona, Samson and Delilah, Dido and Aeneas, only the third is spoken of, and it is spoken of oracularly. The town has a motto which consists of

the Latin words carved on the ruined monument near the dock gates: Miscerique probat populos et foedera jungi. ‘He approves of the mingling of the peoples and their bonds of union’: that was what the words meant, and again they were very old words, from the days of ancient Rome. They came from a poem about the founding of Rome. The very first Roman hero, travelling to Italy to found his city, lands on the coast of Africa. The local queen falls in love with him, and it seems that the journey to Italy might be called off. But then the watching gods take a hand; and one of them says that the great Roman god might not approve of a settlement in Africa, of a mingling of peoples there, of treaties of union between Africans and Romans. That was how the words occurred in the old Latin poem. In the motto, though, three words were altered to reverse the meaning. According to the motto, the words carved in granite outside our dock gates, a settlement in Africa raises no doubts: the great Roman god approves of the mingling of peoples and the making of treaties in Africa.

There is irony here. We are made to feel that the reversed meaning is wrong. This is a book which takes for granted, and which has doubts about, the mingling of peoples, and it is a book which takes pride in its chosen people – Salim’s and, in some measure, Naipaul’s. Virgil’s Aeneas leaves a burning Troy to go on his adventures, effect his betrayal, and arrive at the Tiber, where an empire is to rise. Salim is an Aeneas who makes it to London, where those of his blood are founding a way of life, and he has his Dido both in Yvette and in Metty. Perhaps this much can be said without suggesting that the book is an epic for Kenya Asians, which tells of a people threatened by nobodies, nothings, and managing to survive. Nor is it a one-sided account of the injustices suffered by this people, or a defence of the energetic stranger.

The myths are not all equally available to the novel, and they are not enough to explain it. This lucid and candid prose, strong in the detail of a particular time and place, often ignores, and can on occasion seem to depart from, the sense of the literature it embodies. The offended looks of the muzzy black citoyen who is put in to own Salim’s store when trade is politicised are funny, and important, and owe nothing to the Aeneid. But those who would prefer to explain the book as a comedy of manners, or as current affairs, might have difficulty in explaining the prominence given to the love affair. The plot states that an attachment to a strange woman, a woman who does not belong to this community of strangers, is succeeded by a return to the community, and by the dispersal, and survival, of the community. Salim states that he was having a rough time, and was tired and suspicious of Yvette: he does not say that a tribal god commanded him to leave her. It may be that neither statement need be held to subtract from the other, but there could well be some dispute as to which of the two is the more deeply entrenched in the novel.

Conrad – the Conrad who writes about the mingling of peoples, and about empire and adventure – has been of assistance to Naipaul in his descriptions of Africa, and of other places exotically far from the British readership with whom he earned his initial reputation, and the closing scene in this novel may allude to the journey up-river to Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’. The story of that name contains gangsters, scrambling exploiters, mercenaries, businessmen, an ideologue, and it ends in horror and mystery, and in an interview with an Intended: Conrad’s Africa is not at odds with Naipaul’s.

When the steamer quits the town, it is attacked by rebels, but manages to fight clear. Meanwhile, in this closing scene, the water hyacinths proceed towards the sea, as they have been doing throughout the action. They keep coming, like immigrants, or refugees, like the boat people whom this novel could be thought to predict. Salim’s flight to London can be compared to the movement of these flowers, and to the Romeward journey in Virgil. His fortunes are those of someone who will remain homeless even if he is able to make a home for himself in a further foreign country. As such, they are those of his kind. And they are those of a hero, as well as a drifting hyacinth. He is a hero, with a hero’s faults: an achiever and an adventurer who is also a victim and an outcast, a shameful man and a faithful family man. Subtly mythic and ethnocentric, the novel is one of Naipaul’s most rewarding. It speaks of the separation of races, and of a world which mixes them up. But if it sometimes seems to be saying, on Salim’s behalf, that race or kinship wins, it is also the case that it is full of losers, that it has a lively feeling for the Africans of market and bush, and for their African troubles, and for the situation of Salim as someone evolved or emerged from a tribal narrowness to an experience of sexual love which is liberating and dramatic, and that it does justice to Metty’s last state, left behind in the dangerous town at the bend in the river.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.