'Provincializing Europe': The Postcolonial Urban Uncanny in V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River

By Johnson, Erica L. | Journal of Narrative Theory, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

'Provincializing Europe': The Postcolonial Urban Uncanny in V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River


Johnson, Erica L., Journal of Narrative Theory


V. S. Naipaul is somewhat infamous in postcolonial circles. As a world traveler and chronicler of global history, from the American South and Islamic fundamentalism in Iran to Indian diasporic histories on four continents, he is regarded alternately as a leading critic of the colonial condition and as an intellectual collaborator with that same regime. He is praised for the crystalline clarity of his prose and criticized for his skeptical characterizations of nearly every society that he represents in his work; he is read as a Caribbean, Indian, and English writer.1 His biographer Bruce King concludes that Naipaul, who was born and raised in Trinidad, dispenses with geographical identity and "regard[s] himself as a former colonial who became a homeless cosmopolitan" (3). With regard to Naipaul's African works, though, King identifies Naipaul's stance as one deeply critical of colonialism and the representational schema of colonial historiography. King goes so far as to class these novels with those of WoIe Soyinka and Chinua Achebe in their shared project of understanding a question - "how, in the complex coming together of the 'post' and the 'colonial' [do] the present and the past inform one another[?]" - articulated by the editors of an essay collection devoted to the question of postcolonial historiography (Fuchs and Baker 329). Naipaul's configuration of time through space in A Bend in the River, his allegorical 1979 novel based not-so-loosely on the post-independence period in the Congo (then Zaire), presents a deeply insightful response to this question. Naipaul's rearrangement of temporality through space, evident in his characters' experience of a postcolonial form of the urban uncanny, leads to a metaphysics of postcoloniality whereby the terms "post" and "colonial" enter into a mutually haunting, as opposed to sequential, relationship, illustrating Dipesh Chakrabarty's argument that in ex-colonial locales, "historical time is not integral ... it is out of joint with itself" (16). The novel's uncanny chro notope, legible in its urban spaces, structures Naipaul's portrayal of postcolonial and postimperial nations as well as his unique view on the meaning and utility of the marker of "post" in these two interconnected contexts.

A Bend in the River opens with a particularly nihilistic view of colonial history. While his many critics go after what they see to be an implicit teleology in the novel, these readings take Naipaul's despairing vision of cyclical growth and decay, of consecutive failed civilizations, as a chronology in which, to quote one such analysis, "decolonization is an aberration in the orderly, progressive process of change" (Samantrai 54). Samantrai opens his analysis of A Bend in the River with the charge that the novel reflects "the neocolonial vision of V. S. Naipaul, perhaps the most widely read contemporary apologist for European colonialism" (50). Adebayo Williams, who calls Naipaul "a tortured and tormented soul stranded by choice, an outcast by vocation, a cultured déraciné and homme désengagé," responds to such criticism with the circumspect observation that "despite his foibles and eccentricities, there is an inner consistency, a troubling integrity about most of what Naipaul has to say, however outlandish and outrageous these may be, that they demand serious engagement" (16). Finally, Imre Szeman offers an apt overall assessment of Naipaul criticism in his observation that "Naipaul's writing is seen either as the literary equivalent of developmental and modernization theories or as its almost exact opposite: as an important corrective to the overly optimistic characterizations of the postcolonial world offered by other writers and critics" (98). As Szeman concludes, though, this dual-pronged approach, while it accurately reflects critical trends, does not sum up the complexity of Naipaul's work. What becomes evident in the larger conversation about Naipaul is that getting past his looming persona is not easy and that he has established himself as a contrarian to entire communities of scholars and writers; moreover, he reprises his views from text to text, as Kevin Foster amply illustrates in his analysis of the overlap between Naipaul's writing about Argentina and India - and, for that matter, about Africa. …

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