The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

naipaul and menand

Although I finished it several weeks ago, I'm still not sure what I think about V.S. Naipaul's A BEND IN THE RIVER. He's one of those authors that I'd heard a great deal about, essentially all of it wildly positive, but still didn't know much about even after reading one of his classics (A HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS, which I read about five years ago). A recent and very sensationalistic authorized biography of Naipaul caused a commotion in the book-review press, as the biography dwells on Naipaul's taste for rough sex and his often brutal and generally callous treatment of the women in his life. None of this was an entirely new story, of course, as Paul Theroux had already written extensively about what a bastard Sir Vidia is/was, but to have this in an "authorized" biography was pretty delicious. Anyway, apart from all of the gossip I'd always heard that Naipaul was one of the great stylists in English and that if his politics weren't so uncongenial to the project he'd be the great postcolonial writer. (His novels certainly document the fragmenting of the old colonial order, but not in the celebratory way that lefty postcolonials prefer.) I had slogged through MR. BISWAS without it making a great impression, but since A BEND IN THE RIVER is considered Naipaul's greatest work I tried it out with my last credit.

Like MR. BISWAS, it wanders and meanders and doesn't feel particularly tightly plotted. Huge events occur during the novel, and the main character (Salim) observes them from his unimportant position, and they determine Salim's development, but it's hard to say about this novel "this happened, and it led to this, and it ended up this way." Salim is an Indian Muslim from the Indian trading diaspora, here in southern Africa (an unnamed nation but most critics see it to be what used to be called the Belgian Congo and then Zaire). He leaves his "cosmopolitan" coastal city for a city in the interior where he buys a general-store business. The city in which he lives waxes and wanes with the nation's fortunes; over the course of the book the foreigners who give the city culture and money are driven out by "bush" people during decolonization, then return when the nation normalizes, then start to leave again when the Big Man leader (likely modeled on Mobutu Sese Seko) begins to rile up those "bush" people. It's a fascinating look at a little-known group of people and at a predicament I'd never thought much about.

After that I quickly sped through Louis Menand's THE METAPHYSICAL CLUB, a kind of heavy-hitters lineup of mid-19th-century American intellectual history: Dewey, Holmes, Agassiz, Peirce, William James, and many others make appearances. Menand is a New Yorker writer and he brings that blessed clarity to this book, but even at that I'm such a philosophical illiterate (and lazy reader of this book) that I couldn't quote back at you Menand's explanation of what "pragmatism" actually is. Oddly enough, I did start to understand why statistics was such a breakthrough by reading THE METAPHYSICAL CLUB.



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