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A Dark Vision: A Bend in the River

or sheer abundance of talent there can hardly be a writer alive who surpasses V. S. Naipaul. Whatever we may want in a novelist is to be found in his books: an almost Conradian gift for tensing a story, a serious involvement with human issues, a supple English prose, a hard-edged wit, a personal vision of things. Best of all, he is a novelist unafraid of using his brains--he would surely jeer at the common American notion that the exercise of mind saps a writer's vital juices. His novels are packed with thought, not as lumps of abstraction but as one fictional element among others, fluid in the stream of narrative.

Born to Hindu parents in Trinidad in 1932, Naipaul has lived as an outsider, first by virtue of fate and then, apparently, by clear-minded decision. His knowledge of the India from which his family stems is not large, nor his feeling for it secure. He resides in England, but no one could take him for an Englishman. What, then, is he? I would say: the world's writer, a master of language and perception, our sardonic blessing.

"Every writer," Naipaul has remarked, "is, in the long run, on his own; but it helps, in the most practical way, to have a tradition. The English language was mine; the [English] tradition was not." Yet precisely from this deracination he has drawn novelistic strength. It enables a steely perspective, the scraped honesty of the margin. It spurs him to a cool precision, trusting his own eyes. In novels such as "In a Free state" (a dazzling tour de force), "Guerrillas" and now, perhaps best of all, "A Bend in the River," Naipaul struggles with the ordeals and absurdities of living in new "third world" countries. He is free of any romantic moonshine about the moral charms of primitives or the glories of blood-stained dictators. Nor does he show a trace of Western condescension or nostalgia for colonialism.



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A review of A Bend in the River, by V. S. Naipaul.


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