BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Just about every great novel showcases one or another liberal piety. Middlemarch shows how political change can never be made to benefit the poor unless the rich feel sufficiently guilty to lead the way. The great American novel, Huckleberry Finn, invites white Americans to ask how we managed to subjugate and terrorize millions of blacks and keep faith with the Sermon on the Mount and the Bill of Rights.
I won’t multiply examples. But suffice it to say, the novel’s leftward bent is so consistent and robust to force one to ask why the sentiments of the right are so absent from the novel. Novels are the books that ask why we are here, what we ultimately are up to, what it means to be human. Maybe there is something about these animating questions that bind the novel organically to the temperament of the left.
V.S. Naipaul is having none of this. I’ve just started reading his 1979 A Bend in the River, which opens with a clarion call that comes unmistakeably from the right. Of course I don’t know how the book will end, but its opening sentence proclaims a world which is in no way amenable to liberal pieties. “The world is what it is,” Naipaul declares. Furthermore, it contains two kind of men–those who assert the power of their traditions and thus leave their mark, and those who go with the flow and are drowned in history’s tide. The latter man, Naipaul says, amounts to nothing, is nothing. Strong stuff.
Obviously I haven’t gotten to the bottom of A Bend in the River yet. Naipaul’s antagonist, the ethnic-Indian trader Salim, may prove to be an unreliable narrator. Liberal pieties may still lurk in the distance. But for the moment, Naipaul’s novel is the most bracing kind of tonic for any serious political thinker–a capable challenger to one’s accepted doctrines. As Salim tries to revive a defunct trading post in interior east Africa, his life comes unmoored from the cosmopolitan society of Portuguese, Persians and Arabs that once hummed on the east African coast and made it what it was. Now, violent revolutions have freed African colonies and drained the polyglot coast of its sustaining cultural power. Salim begins to discover how fragile political order is, and how humans revert to older, possibly stronger traditions in the absence of it.
This is going to be good.