Today I finished V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend In the River which I used for my Trinidad read due to the author’s nationality.
Here is the trade paperback summary of this book: In the “brilliant novel” (The New York Times) V.S. Naipaul takes us deeply into the life of one man—an Indian who, uprooted by the bloody tides of Third World history, has come to live in an isolated town at the bend of a great river in a newly independent African nation. Naipaul gives us the most convincing and disturbing vision yet of what happens in a place caught between the dangerously alluring modern world and its own tenacious past and traditions.
And here is my review: I liked this book, but compared with some of my Africa reads from last year (Nervous Conditions, Things Fall Apart, and Devil on the Cross), it did not move me as much as I’d hoped. There was a vibrancy in all the books I have just mentioned that was missing in this book. This book had a colder, calculated, more observational tone. The former books were written by native Africans who clearly had passion for their countries and their experiences of post-colonial life. Naipaul is Trinidadian, and his character is from an Islamic Indian family that had settled in earlier generations on the East African Coast, part of a wave of colonization by Asia and Islam that preceded European control of these areas. The protagonist is of Africa, and yet not, especially as he has moved inland from his coastal country of birth into an inland bush country along the river at the heart of the continent. His perspective is colored by this identity, and he struggles with questions of how he fits in the volatile fabric of life in his small river town. This book, too, explores themes of African identity, political tyranny, and European influence in post-colonial Africa, and it leaves one feeling pretty grim. Unlike the African authors who write on these themes, Naipal cannot convey the depth of tragedy or undercurrent of profound love for a troubled homeland that produced the richer experience I had with the books mentioned above. I am still glad to have read the book and to have had insight into this other world of experience, but I have not had my world transformed in any meaningful way in the reading of this book.
Having finished up this very sobering book, I embarked on the next leg of my journey–one which will have quite a different character. My next stop is Kiribati (kir-ee-bas). Here is what the author of my next book, The Sex Lives of Cannibals, says he learned of his future home in the 3 weeks between the decision to move there and the actual flight out of DC:
“Located just a notch above the equator and five thousand miles from anywhere, Tarawa is the capital of this country of thirty-three atolls scattered over an ocean area as large as the continental United States. The total landmass of these islands is about three hundred square miles, roughly the size of the greater Baltimore metropolitan area, though I believe it halves at high tide. Most of Kiribati’s landmass is found on Kiritimati Island (Christmas Island), several thousand miles away from Tarawa. What remains is not much.
To picture Kiribati, imagine that the continental U.S. were to conveniently disappear leaving only Baltimore and a vast swath of very blue ocean in its place. Now chop up Baltimore into thirty-three pieces, place a neighborhood where Maine used to be, another where California once was, and so on until you have thirty three pieces of Baltimore dispersed in such a way so as to ensure that 32/33 of Baltimoreans will never attend an Orioles game again. Now take away electricity, running water, toilets, television, restaurants, buildings, and airplanes (except for two very old prop planes, tended by people who have no word for “maintenance”). Replace with thatch. Flatten all land into a uniform two feet above sea level. Toy with islands by melting polar ice caps. Add palm trees. Sprinkle with hepatitis A, B, and C. Stir in dengue fever and intestinal parasites. Take away doctors. Isolate and bake at a constant temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The result is the Republic of Kiribati.”
He also notes that there is 0% arable land, 70% underemployment, life expectancy in the 50s, and that the only natural resource, phosphate, ceased production in the same year that the country became independent: 1979.
I honestly think that Naipaul’s first sentence: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it,” could apply to Kiribati as well as to Central Africa, but that would be the beginning of a very different book. This one promises, like J. Maarten Troost’s later book, Getting Stoned with Savages about life on Vanuatu which I read last year, to be a sympathetic and side-splitting glimpse into life in a much more brilliantly lit hidden corner of the world.
My next post will be about what I discover to eat for my Kiribati stop. *Spoiler Alert!* Our household is vegetarian, so there will not be any people on the ingredient list, despite the title of my chosen book!