The World is what it is – a phrase that now seems instantly Naipaul. Not only because Patrick French used it as the title for Naipaul's much publicized biography, but because a lot of Naipaul's writing seems to converge in these words – a real, clear and unapologetic observance of the world, which shuns romanticism and intellectual exaltation.
'The World is what it Is' are the words with which Naipaul begins his brilliant novel A bend in the River – his commentary on Africa. In his characteristic disdain for third world countries, Naipaul has reflected a plain, bleak and unhopeful reality, entertaining no optimism for post-colonial Africa. Unfortunately this dismissal is not born out of snobbery or an affected worldview, but is a reflection through an acute, intellectual but a very practical mind.
The protagonist, Salim, is an Indian whose family has lived in Africa for many generations. In a hope to create an individual identity and to escape from Nationalistic euphoria that has threatened his family business, he moves to the interior of Africa where he sets up a shop. In this interior town, which is referred as the town at the bend in the river, Salim experiences the confusion of post-colonial Africa. He meets young men full of pride marching off to fancy schools; he sees the ubiquitous portrait of the dictator, the Big Man, which keeps growing in size; he sees the rise of fancy buildings and listens to jingoistic, fashioned speeches. As a thoughtful outsider who is still not completely detached, Salim is an ideal narrator of the state with his slightly amused and slightly anxious annotations. He has little sympathy for the natives, who are believed by the outsiders to be malin, of evil disposition. Through a young man who has been put in his charge, he sees the ridiculousness of modern African who frequently changes attitudes and mannerism, trying to find his own identity but managing only to imitate others. This man also swings widely from the African of the bush to the modern man of wealth, finding discontent on each side.
But it is not only the darkness of Africa or third world countries that are at the center of this novel. It is also a story of alienation and self-imposed exile, and a quest for home, which Naipaul indicates to be futile. In the form of Indar, Salim's childhood friend, it seems to me that Naipaul presents a sort of an alter-ego – an intellectual who abandons his home and is grossly disappointed when confronted with the mediocrity of India which is his native land. In a rebellious streak to seek a separate identity, he criticizes others who accept this 'given' life:
And that is where I suppose life ends for most people, who stiffen in the attitudes they adopt to make themselves suitable for the jobs and lives that other people have laid out for them.
Indar, like Naipaul, also advises (Salim) to 'trample on the past', to let go of the romantic images of childhood and homeland, because that image exists only in the mind and not in reality. It cannot serve anyone to dwell in those images.
It is one of the most remarkable novels that I have read – at once superior and harsh. Its reality is disheartening to read, especially as part of a country which is grappling with a similar truth despite all protests.