Comments by Bob Corbett
Note about SPOILERS in these comments:
Given that this is quite an old work, I am simply going to comment about my experience of the novel and not worry about spoiling the plot for any who have not read it. So, if you haven’t yet read this book you may well not want to read what follows.
Salim, the narrator and main character is an India man who has lived in Africa most of his life. Something that makes him an especially fascinating narrator is that he is not a learned man, only has an elementary school education, is not rich and runs a very modest business in a recently independent African nation. His business is not only quite modest, but a sort of messy mélange of things, nearly a glorified junk shop.
The novel is set in an unnamed African country which is said to be situated in central east Africa with coastline touching the Indian Ocean. I was fascinated with this lack of NAMING and tried very hard to figure out which nation it was. I did maps, used internet clus and little by little I was able to eliminate every “contender” for being the home nation. Later on, I decided to see if any others could name the country. I loved a very early review in The New York Times in which the author says it is indeed not a “named” nation and that it was actually Niapaul’s “own territory.” I liked that a great deal.
It seems to me that this serves Naipaul’s purposes quite well since he is trying to touch on the moment in time, not so much the exact country. It is not an historical novel, but a novel centered in the concept of the attempt of several African nations to throw off their European rulers and to build a new land, and the tremendous difficulties, virtually impossibilities, that this presented to the rising nations.
Not only is no nation named, but the time is vague. The novel is set in an African nation shortly after it’s after independence; a nation being run by a strong man. Salim moves there shortly after the overthrow of the European power, sells his odds and ends, watching the changing scene and thinking about it.
He has a near-slave servant, Metty, who came with him from the east coast. Salim meets Zabeth, a bush African marchande and her young son Ferdinand, later to become a “player” in the new government and then the counter-revolution against it. Salim becomes a friend of Raymond, an intellectual, once the right hand man of the new leader, and now falling out of favor. Raymond is married to the beautiful Yvette who soon becomes Salim’s first real lover. Two other characters who play an important role are his long-time friends, the husband and wife team Mahesh and Shorba. They end up opening a popular burger joint in the newly developed area where the government officials and their hangers-on all live.
We follow the recent current history of this nation through three phases, and moving into yet a fourth. First comes the “Second Revolution” which follows shortly after the original overthrow of the European power. This revolution is quite short lived sort of returns to power of the revolutionary forces which are lead by one man, the LEADER.
In the town where the novel is set, this new leader establishes a geographic area on the outskirts of the town called the “New Domain.” This is where the government and soldiers live, AND where privileged foreigners and other wealthier and “favored” folks live.
Soon, however, the power structure begins to shift as the LEADER becomes more and more a dictator, wishing, perhaps, to be a relatively benign dictator, but in reality becoming a terrorist protecting “his” country.
His aims do sound nearly utopian:
“The themes were not new: sacrifice and the bright future; the dignity of the woman of Africa; the need to strengthen the revolution, unpopular thought it was with those black men in the towns who dreamed of waking up one day as white men; the need for Africans to be African, to go back without shame to their democratic and socialist ways, to rediscover the virtues of their diet and medicines of their grandfathers and not to go running like children after things in imported tins and bottles; the need for vigilance, work and, above all, discipline.”
However, his heavy-handed mode of control and his moving away from some older African traditions lead to a counter-revolution. The new “Liberation Army” claiming “Our Ancestors Shriek” as they rail against foreign government and big businesses.
Soon the nation becomes more dictatorial with the LEADER clamping down harshly on the rebels and life becomes intolerable for foreigners. Poor Salim isn’t quite clever enough to have foreseen this and is barely able to escape the country to seemingly move to England to start his life all over again.
I found the novel to be gripping. There was a constant dialectic between the life and struggles of Salim in his own private life, and the struggles of this African nation to develop and secure itself. The two existed side by side, certainly interacted with one another, but had very different foci. I was excited by both, and especially enjoyed the fact that this lowly man, Salim, was the narrator.
Some have criticized the novel for being colonialistic and anti-post-colonialist. It didn’t seem that way to me. I saw Naipaul as presenting the nearly impossible conditions for this nation’s attempt of making a successful move into the modern world given the loaded dice which these emerging nations faced. Thus I see it as a realistic novel, not one devoted to any political ideology, European, African or any other. Salim’s cousin, Indar, is something of an intellectual and his task in the new government is to help educate the new “boys” (literally) coming into power in the government. I don’t see any condescension is his claim his group’s work is important.
“You see why my outfit is needed. Unless we can get them thinking, and give them real ideas instead of just politics and principles, these young men will keep our world in turmoil for the next half century.”
That seemed to me to be more the line I saw Naipaul following. He was interested in the struggle of how this nation, or “any” nation of the period and place, was likely to deal with the difficult situation they were in, and how it was likely to play out. I think of that more as realism than ideology.
Salim, not nearly as bright as Indar and much less experienced, was still an acute observer of human affairs. Because of his surprising and unusual connections with folks in the New Domain, he experiences things others in his socio-economic situation couldn’t, and his comments seem to me spot on. Given that I was in something of a similar situation in the early 1960s with the New Left in the U.S. I was attracted to it as a Johnny-come-lately but noticed the same thing that Salim sees at a party of mainly Europeans and rising Africans. Salim is hearing Western folk music of the period and is entranced by the songs of Joan Baez:
“It was make-believe – I never doubted that. You couldn’t listen to sweet songs about injustice unless you expected justice and received it much of the time. You couldn’t sing songs about the end of the world unless – like other people in that room, so beautiful with such simple things: African mats on the floor, African hangings on the wall and spears and masks – you felt that the world was going on and you were safe in it. How easy it was, in that room, to make those assumptions!”
Given that Naipaul’s novel was first published in 1979 and was probably finished a bit before that, I was quite startled by another passage, this time from the character Nazrudii, a relative of Salim and to whose daughter Salim has become engaged. This is a view that seems rather prophetic and wasn’t a very common view in the mid to late 1970s, at least as best I can recall:
“I’m superstitious about the Arabs. They gave us and half the world our religion, but I can’t help feeling that when they leave Arabia terrible things are about to happen in the world. You just have to think of where we come from. Persia, India, Africa. Think of what happened there. Now Europe. They’re pumping the oil in and sucking the money out. Pumping the oil in to keep the system going, sucking the money out to send it crashing down. They need Europe. They want the goods and the properties and at the same time they need a safe place for their money. Their own countries are so dreadful. But they’re destroying money. They’re killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”
For me this was a gripping novel and challenging. I don’t really know very much about the period of African decolonization of the 1960s-70s and felt Naipaul gave me some insight in the depths of the difficulties it presented to so many newly-formed nations. I loved his mode of presentation giving us characters from all realms of society from the ex-pat narrator to the bush woman mystic and trader in goods. His depiction of the LEADER was rather what I would have expected, but so many other characters and their roles in society were of people I could never have quite imagined in my own limited experience. The novel was a very useful read as well and extremely enjoyable.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com