restricted access Claiming the Burden: Naipaul's Africa
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Claiming the Burden:
Naipaul’s Africa

In his work on the epistemology of the anthropological endeavor, Johannes Fabian argues that the “West” constructs its relationship with “the Rest” (28) through a notion of time that affirms “difference as distance” (16). Fabian is concerned primarily with the notion of modernity, the trope through which the West locates itself and constructs the difference of its racial and cultural others. Inherent in his “Politics of Time,” however, is a politics of sexuality that, in addition to creating a teleological history for the triumph of the normative Western subject, also posits a specifically gendered location for the Rest. The epistemology Fabian describes is identical to that which informs the neocolonial vision of V. S. Naipaul, perhaps the most widely read contemporary apologist for European colonialism.

To locate his own writing, Naipaul declares, “I do not write for Indians, who in any case do not read. My work is only possible in a liberal, civilized country. It is not possible in primitive societies” (Hardwick 1). His explanation of the link between personal empowerment, literature, and international relations is a small and perhaps trivial example of the residue of the age of the European empires. But the legitimating discourses of imperialism have proven to be surprisingly intransigent, shaping the relations between West and Rest long after the end of direct military occupation of the colonies. In this essay I intend to investigate terms which derive their salience from the logic that once justified imperialism, and which define the still stable boundaries between the major players in the colonial drama. 1 I shall do so by examining their function in a particular text, Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, which provides a fictional documentation of the political shift from colonial to postcolonial Africa. I take Naipaul’s novel to be a local enactment of the process of constructing a logic that enables an expression of imperialism to appear reasonable, even inevitable, despite the loss of the context of European empires. Hence my analysis of this text belongs in the project defined by Paul Gilroy as the ongoing task of “mapping the changing contours of racist ideologies, the semantic fields in which they operate, their special rhetoric, and their internal fractures, as well as their continuities” (263).

A Bend in the River provides a map for reading the “racial subjectification and subjection” of social agents (Goldberg xii). Naipaul creates racial groupings through the language of gender, which in turn is based upon a developmental paradigm of the masculine as progressive differentiation from the feminine. An unquestioned understanding of time as linear and forward moving allows Naipaul to place his characters on an evolutionary scale of racial and gendered development. A Bend in the River thus explains colonial rule and the continuing supremacy of the West as the inevitable consequence of the natural laws of progress. Not surprisingly, the violence of colonialism is also explained away as the exercise of the legitimate and benevolent authority of the father over both mothers and children. In [End Page 50] other words, Naipaul creates anew the notion of “modern man,” drawing upon the concepts of progress and normative masculinity to shore up a beleaguered ideology of Euro-American supremacy. It is, by now, commonplace to note the inextricability of race and gender in the rhetoric of imperialism. The novelty of A Bend in the River lies in Naipaul’s deployment of this rhetoric at the moment the colony wins its independence. The novel thus takes on the task of defending the practice of colonialism by demonstrating the continuing veracity of its logic in the postcolonial world.

Modernity, according to Fabian, can be traced to “a succession of attempts to secularize Judeo-Christian Time by generalizing and universalizing it” (2). These attempts, most famously undertaken by social evolutionists, undermined the Judeo-Christian understanding of time as “the medium of sacred history” (2) and eventually replaced “faith in salvation by faith in progress and industry” (17). 2 But the teleology remained essentially the same, for secularized Time still “‘accomplished’ or brought about things in the course of evolution,” thus providing a way to chart the flow of human history (15...