The Limits of Exegesis


A close reading of V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979).


Bigburger pictures looked like smooth white lips of bread over mangled black tongues of meat. (97)


Bigburger: Singular pronoun. Bigburger—“The Big One,” (ibid) curiously set opposite the Big Man, the president—is not merely a brand, product or franchise, it's a pseudo-state, assuming the role of accommodating refugees (99) and constituting the "New Domain" by rivaling the state's role in growing local real estate. Indeed, Bigburger represents Mahesh's "coup", (97) presumably displacing, or at the very least challenging, the Big Man's authority with the backing of international capital's new colonialism.

Pictures: Plural noun. Graphic representations of the Bigburger universe, conceived, manufactured and shipped in from the white outside. These representations interestingly condition our narrator's perception of that outside—in the end, after all, Bigburger becomes a sort of outside, resembling his notions of the U.S., (98) at least in that it provides a space of escape from "real Africa" (100).  These pictures contrast the photographs of the State Domain, which serve the same function in reverse, following an Africa-Europe trajectory.

Looked: Verb, preterit tense, indicating vision, or more generally, perspective. In this case the perspective can be assumed to be that of the narrator, wrapped up in all the complexities of his very fluid subjectivity.

Like: Conjunction, grammatically indicative of union between two clauses: here the representations (i.e photos) and our narrator’s interpretation of them. This term also embodies a sense of approximate resemblance, qualifying that interpretation as subjective and dependent upon the narrator's subject-position as a third-generation African of Indian descent whose loose use of the subject pronoun ‘us’ often includes characters of Indian, Middle-Eastern or European origins as well as Africans. At different times, all of these subjects are equally set up as others depending on the narrator's chosen point of view.  

Smooth: Adjective. Aesthetically and tactilely inviting, as opposed to the next adjective “mangled”. This is where the narrator’s own interpretation begins. Note the use of binary structure to construct subjectivity (smooth-mangled, white-black, lips-tongues, bread-meat) and the way the narrator’s own slippery subject-position won’t fit neatly into either dichotomous category.

White: Adjective. Read as European / American.

Lips: Plural noun. See Tongues below.

Of: Preposition. See Of  below.

Bread: Noun. Produced, presumably from grains (i.e. seeds), indicating growth / life / future.

Over: Preposition denoting a position of superiority. In an echo of the inside-outside, black-white dichotomy, the Narrator’s interpretation of these Bigburger pictures is one in which outside white articulations / representations enclose—and therefore silence?—inside black ones.

Mangled: Adjective. By whom? Again the idea of authority is touched upon. One might assume that the outside, white, European representations, produced in the service of international, neocolonial interests, struggles for (and achieves) superiority over the discursive productions sponsored by the Big Man. This at least is the narrator’s perspective as seen in this one statement about Bigburger pictures.

Black: Adjective. Read as African.

Tongues: Plural noun. The smooth white lips are set up in opposition to mangled black tongues, but note the necessity of both in forming phonetic points of articulation. The link to voice and articulation signifies some notion of agency and some recognition of the subject behind discursive representations; one might assume that the Bigburger pictures have been articulated by smooth white lips; the State Domain photos, on the other hand, by mangled black tongues.  

Of: Preposition, as in coming before the position of the noun. The prefix, pre, connotes not only a grammatical, but a conceptual sense of progression—point A to point B; preposition to noun; white lips to bread; black tongues to meat—as though white lips precede bread, or European articulations lead to growth and prosperity. Following the binary structure of this interpretation and the significance given to meat, African articulations must have led to death and stagnation.

Meat: Noun. Flesh, indicating the ephemeral / death, like so many missing hippos (66).