thirty-six.

A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul (1979)

“Small things can start us off in new ways of thinking, and I was started off by the postage stamps of our area. The British administration gave us beautiful stamps. These stamps depicted local scenes and local things; there was one called “Arab Dhow”. It was as though, in those stamps, a foreigner had said, ‘This is what is most striking about this place’. Without that stamp of the dhow I might have taken the dhows for granted. As it was, I learned to look at them. Whenever I saw them tied up at the waterfront I thought of them as something peculiar to our region, quaint, something the foreigner would remark on, something not quite modern, and certainly nothing like the liners and cargo ships that berthed in their own modern docks”

Salim grows up on somewhere on the East Coast of Africa, but his ancestors came from India. Looking to get away from the place, he buys a shop in a city by a bend in the river in the heart of Africa. He arrives in the midst of decolonisation. He watches the city growing, first slowly and then very rapidly under the new government. The new president (or Big Man) must be popular, his face and people are everywhere. Salim admires him and ignores the signs that tell him to leave while he still can.

I could quote every passage from this book. It is a marvellous story about post-colonial Africa and feeling out of place. In some ways the writing style and theme reminded me of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, but I definitely liked this book better.

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