Salim, of Indian descent although his family has lived on the coast of east Africa for generations, takes an offer from a family friend, Nazruddin, to buy and manage a shop hundreds of miles inland. (Although the city and country is never named, it’s pretty obviously based on Kisangani in DR Congo, formerly Zaire, formerly Belgian Congo.) Salim arrives in the city shortly after the end of colonialism – the Europeans have been kicked out. There is a period of peace for several years, then a new President comes into power and things start to get dangerous. Salim’s shop is eventually “nationalized” and given to a native African. Salim is later arrested, but is helped by the province commissioner, who frequented the shop as a teenager at the beginning of the story. He sets Salim free and advises him to get out of the country, since everything is going downhill. The book ends with Salim riding the steamer down the river.
I think a lot of symbolism in this story may have been over my head, but I kind of see the story of modern Africa (at least up until the 60’s or 70’s) in Salim’s life. He has an affair with a Belgian woman – this is like colonialism. There are some benefits, but he eventually gets (irrationally?) enraged at their relationship and beats her – this is like the revolution against the Europeans. Afterwards, he has a crisis of confusion regarding his purpose in life and visits Nazruddin, now in London. When he returns to Africa, his shop has been nationalized and things go downhill. It seems like one of the main themes in the story is how Africa is trying to come into its own and follow the Western path to success, but that path just doesn’t fit with African culture for some reason and so chaos takes over.
I thought it was interesting that Naipaul wasn’t from Africa, for as much as he seems to know about it. He is of Indian descent, but is from Trinidad.
Another interesting point is how different the various tribes in Africa are to one another. The anecdote is told of European missionaries buying slaves and setting them free, establishing villages for them to live in … but the villages are far, far away from where the slaves came from. The villagers are quickly terrorized by the locals and driven off, killed, or recaptured as slaves. They were among fellow Africans, true, but the local Africans were strangers to them just as Eskimos would be to citizens of the US. Eskimos and Americans occupy the same continent, but live quite different lives. Similarly, many African tribes are as different from each other, but the Western tendency is to lump them all into one group.