This web essay is based upon a paper the author wrote for Professor Neil Bissoondath's "Postcolonial Literature II" [ANG-64699A], Laval University.
V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River, tells the story of Salim, an Indian merchant, who having spent his childhood and youth in the East Coast of Africa, decides to move inland to improve his situation. There, he becomes the manager of a store in a forgotten colonial village. Through his eyes, the reader learns about the transformation of Africa from a colonial land into a chaotic continent ruled by a jingoistic president. For the purpose of this essay, the discussion will be focused on the vision of History contained in the novel that is paradigmatic of that adhered to by a great part of contemporary fiction. In the character of Raymond, Naipaul embodies the workings and method of historical representation. Raymond is a Belgian historian and scholar who has been engaged by the Big Man to write propagandistic works on his administration. Raymond's method and work raises the question of the validity of historical documents and sources and unveils the link between power, ideology and historical representation.
Foreshadowing Raymond's central role in the construction of the History of the Big Man's country, Salim reflects upon his knowledge of the past and realises that all of it comes from European sources, i.e., the colonising countries: "All that I know of our history and the history of the Indian Ocean I have got from books written by Europeans [...] Without Europeans, I feel, all our past would have been washed away..." (18). Historical accounts of the Indian people had been largely shaped by the European vision of Indian identity. Salim intimately knows that his identity has been fixed and defined in essentialist "books by Europeans that [he] is yet to read"(26). He realises that Western historical representations of India and Africa have to do with issues of power and ideology: "It was Europe that gave us the descriptive postage stamps that gave us our ideas of what was picturesque about ourselves" (237). As Edward Said affirms in Orientalism, Western representation of the Orient --and all non-European countries in general-- "depends for its strategy on this flexible positional' superiority which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand" (7). Europe then becomes the centre of meaning that defines and fixes the "other". Representation and, consequently, identity are based on a binary opposition: centre-Europe/periphery-Other. One term of the dichotomy is defined by the exclusion of the other. In A Bend in the River, the relationship between power, ideology and representation is subtly but intelligently treated.
The nature of historical documents and sources is related in significant ways to historical representation. Naipaul makes Salim cast doubt upon the validity and legitimacy of historical documents and sources. Ironically, it is Raymond himself who raises the question of the improbability of producing an exhaustive and faithful account of the African past. During the fancy reception organised by Yvette, Raymond comments on all the events that have gone unrecorded: "Do you think we will ever get to know the truth about what has happened in Africa in the last hundred or even fifty years? All the wars, all the rebellions, all the leaders, all the defeats?" (137). The obvious answer is "no" not only because of the impossibility of covering the totality of events but also because Raymond himself is an untrustworthy historian who distorts and selects the events to be recorded in order to suit those in power and reinforce their ideology. Salim notices that Raymond is oblivious to the personal narratives of the protagonists of the events he records; his sources are only newspaper articles and the like which are manipulated by the Big Man,
[...] and I was always hoping that Raymond was going to go behind the newspaper stories and editorials and try to get at the real events. [...] But Raymond wasn't interested in that side. He didn't give the impression that he had talked to any of the people involved, though many would have been alive when he wrote. [...] His subject was an event in Africa, but he might have been writing about Europe or a place he had never been. (186)
Raymond spent weeks on each article he wrote; nevertheless, he did not talk to the protagonists since this would have implied facing inconvenient and conflicting perspectives of the events. Raymond interprets and analyses events from the centrality of his European identity and he records them in a fashion that pleases the Big Man. Salim realises that even if Raymond has "made Africa his subject", "he had less true knowledge of Africa, less feel for it, than Indar or Nazruddin or even Mahesh" (187). His oblivion to human experience and indifference to local or private narratives are major features of historical discourse.
Naipaul, V. S. A Bend in the River. London: Penguin Books, 1991.
Last modified: 16 June 2000