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A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul

A Bend in the River (1979)

by V. S. Naipaul

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Showing 1-5 of 44 (next | show all)
"Non-fiction can distort; facts can be realigned, but fiction never lies."

Set in an unnamed country which has recently won independence from colonial rule, this novel centres around Salim, a Indian Muslim whose family had settled in an Africa coastal town where they were traders. Salim is impressionable and believes that his family is mired in traditionalism. In an attempt to escape his family's expectations he buys a family friend's business and moves many miles to the interior to a town on 'A Bend in the River'. There he sets himself up as a trader and in doing so becomes an outsider, watching unfolding events with an outsider's nervousness.

The country's President, referred to as the Big Man, initially rules the country and the town with a relatively benign hand. Impressive buildings are built, young people are sent to schools and universities where they can earn cadet-ships and there is a boom but increasingly the people come to realise that they, villagers living in the bush, town squatters, traders and even the ruling officials alike, are all dependent on the whim of the Big Man. There is no coherent society in the country. There is only one single source of power, the Big Man.

The town when Salim initially arrives is largely in ruins, a victim of "African rage," against imperial humiliation but gradually rebuilding begins and Salim finds himself a modest niche within it. However, it is only ever a fairly tenuous one. Warned from the beginning to sell up when his stock reaches a certain level but despite this Salim decides to try and hold on.

I have read a few other reviews of this novel in which people complained that nothing really happens but personally I think that that is one of its strengths. Naipaul manages to succinctly portray Salim as a simple man struggling to understand the new Africa around him. It is an insightful piece of observation dotted with a gentle touches of irony. Naipaul has managed to create a sense of moral tension despite, seemingly, very little happens.

Naipaul has also created an interesting troupe of secondary characters. Mahesh, another Indian trader. always on the look out for money making schemes, willing to ride out the country's turbulent up and downs as long as he has his wife beside him. A Belgian priest who collects tribal masks, despite them visibly decaying, like the world from which they originated. A woman trader from the bush, Salim's first customer, who begs Salim to look after her son, Ferdinand, whilst he is a student in the town.

Best of all though is Raymond, a white intellectual, once the Big Man's advisor who has been moved out of the capital and now spends his time lecturing his provincial admirers on the Big Man's greatness. Raymond has been used and discarded by the Big Man but refuses to accept that his time of influence will not come again. The Big Man has a genius for manipulation and his greatest tool is fear. As Mahesh says, "It isn't that there's no right and wrong here. There's no right."

In contrast Salim prefers to try and avoid passing judgement, to be patient and as an 'outsider' to merely observe. However, when he returns from a trip to London to find that his business has been nationalised and then he is arrested and thrown in jail.

He is rescued by Ferdinand, the town's new commissioner, and warned to leave the town before things get any worse.
"We're all going to hell, and every man knows this in his bones. We're being killed. Nothing has any meaning. . . . Everyone wants to make his money and run away. But where? That is what is driving people mad. They feel they're losing the place they can run back to. I began to feel the same thing when I was a cadet in the capital. I felt I had given myself an education for nothing. . .I began to think I wanted to be a child again, to forget books. . .. The bush runs itself. But there is no place to go."

Ultimately Naipaul offers no hope of perspective salvation for the country's and perhaps Africa. There is no neat ending here and that is fitting because, at least in the short term, the mistakes of the past are likely to be repeated over and over again until hopefully a new generation, without the stigma of colonialist baggage are ready to assume power. As it says in the quote at the top of this review: "facts can be realigned, but fiction never lies". ( )
  PilgrimJess | Sep 4, 2018 |
I found V.S. Naipaul's "A Bend in the River" to be a hard book to rate. The novel really excelled in giving a sense of place in a particular time period, though I didn't care for the way characters were portrayed or the rather bleak view that Naipul appears to take of Africans in general.

Set in an unnamed country in post-Colonial Africa, the book is narrated by Salim, who attempts to make his way in the newly emerging world order. His fortunes ebb and flow depending on the country's politics at the time, as do the fortunes of the people who surround him.

The book, on the whole, is more of a narration than a story -- it straddles the line between being dry and interesting pretty frequently. What I liked best, and what kept me reading, was the descriptions of the way Salim's town changed, rather than the trials and tribulations of the people populating the book. ( )
  amerynth | Aug 31, 2018 |
This book is hard for me to review as I had wildly different reactions as I read the 278 pages. It starts out when a young man of Indian descent living on the East coast of Africa buys a shop in an isolated village at "the bend in the river" of a newly forming African country. The beginning was so interesting and beautifully written. I loved the descriptions of the growing town and its inhabitants, especially the various cultures all trying to navigate life. But then, as the town grows and the politics of this newly formed country get messy, the book sort of lost me. The characters didn't feel real anymore as they did in the beginning. They all felt like simple representations of various points of view. So I started to lose interest. And then the token woman and violent/passionate love affair happens. I absolutely despise books where an author tries to portray a passionate relationship as needing violence to show how deep the emotions are. So then I wanted to just quit reading.

I persevered to the end, but I never got back to enjoying the book as I did at the beginning. So for me, it just wasn't a great reading experience. ( )
1 vote japaul22 | Aug 30, 2018 |
V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad but travelled around the world. If this book is anything to judge by, he became immersed in the culture and politics of the countries he visits.

This book is set in an unnamed country in central Africa but it seems clear that the country is fashioned on the Democratic Republic of Congo which called itself Zaire for a while after independence but has reverted to its former name. The time is the 1960s shortly after the country achieved independence from it colonial masters. Salim is a Muslim of East Indian ancestry but he grew up on the east coast of Africa. He comes to the town at the bend of the river to be the proprietor of a small shop that he bought cheaply from a family friend. The town is still feeling the effects of the war of independence and business is slow. There are few other non-
African citizens in the town but they tend to band together. Salim has very little interaction with the Africans other than the customers in his shop and the prostitutes he visits. His closest relationship with an African is with his shop assistant, Metty, who is the son of slaves his family owned on the coast. Then one of his customers asks him to look out for her son, Ferdinand, who is coming to the town to attend school. Metty and Ferdinand become quite close friends and Salim is somewhat of a mentor to Ferdinand. The town is becoming more prosperous and Salim’s shop is doing fairly well. However, there is always the threat of violence. The head of the school is decapitated while visiting bush villages looking for African art. Salim’s life is quite lonely and aimless. This period ends when an old friend, Indar, takes a job teaching at the technical school the President of the country has established on the outskirts of town. Indar introduces Salim to the academics at the school and Salim finally feels he is in touch with people who matter. Indar is having an affair with the young wife of the school’s principal, Yvette. When Indar’s job term ends, Salim and Yvette have a passionate affair. Meanwhile the political situation for non-Africans is getting worse. One of the Greek merchants quietly sells out and moves to Australia. However Salim cannot contemplate doing this because of Yvette. Eventually the affair ends and in the final scene between them Salim strikes and verbally abuses Yvette. Salim leaves the town for about 6 weeks to visit the family friend from whom he purchased his store who now lives in London. While there he becomes engaged to the friend’s daughter although they have not even kissed. He returns to the town to sell up but finds that in his absence the store has been taken over by the state and given to an African and he is expected to manage the shop for him. Since he does not expect to receive anything for the shop he goes into smuggling in order to make enough money to leave Africa. When his activities come to the attention of the police he is thrown in jail. Fortuitously, Ferdinand is now the Commissioner of the town and he arranges for Salim’s release and a berth on the river steamer. Salim leaves town with nothing more than he can carry.

I thought this book was very well-written but bleak. Considering this book was written in 1979, well before the horrific events in Rwanda and also the Congo, it clearly shows the roots of those conflicts. One of the passages really struck me as showing how privileged my life is. Indar is speaking to Salim about his world view (page 147):
“There may be some part of the world – dead countries, or secure and by-passed ones – where men can cherish the past and think of passing on furniture and china to their heirs. Men can do that perhaps in Sweden or Canada. Some peasant department of France full of half-wits in chateaux; some crumbling Indian palace-city, or some dead colonial town in a hopeless South American country. Everywhere else men are in movement, the world is in movement, and the past can only cause pain.” And so it becomes for Salim.

I probably would have given this book an even higher rating except for the violence in the last meeting between Yvette and Salim. I never feel there is any good reason for a man to strike a woman and in this case it seemed particularly gratuitous. After, Salim has no remorse about his actions and he is treated by Metty as though he is the one who deserves sympathy. I can’t help but wonder about Naipaul’s own relationships with women. I will probably read more books by Naipaul who did receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001. ( )
  gypsysmom | Aug 21, 2017 |
It took me awhile to decide how I should rate this book. I think Naipaul is clearly very talented and his writing is fantastic. He has this fantastic ability to really demonstrate the tension that can be created during drastic change. However, I find his storytelling to be lacking. It starts out well but then goes nowhere. I feel like even Naipaul was getting bored with the story so he would throw in random nonsense like beating up a woman or some random storyline that would never really be resolved.

Salim is a big problem for me as a main character. He is extremely complicated, which is important, but he seems to be very static and is just about always acted upon. When he does decide to do something it seems to come out of nowhere and there is no logical reason behind his action.

I can't decide if I will keep this book or get rid of it once and for all. I have very mixed feelings but I would recommend that you read this if only for the writing. ( )
  Emma_Manolis | Jun 27, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
V. S. Naipaulprimary authorall editionscalculated
Hardwick, ElizabethIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679722025, Paperback)

In the "brilliant novel" (The New York Times) V.S. Naipaul takes us deeply into the life of one man—an Indian who, uprooted by the bloody tides of Third World history, has come to live in an isolated town at the bend of a great river in a newly independent African nation. Naipaul gives us the most convincing and disturbing vision yet of what happens in a place caught between the dangerously alluring modern world and its own tenacious past and traditions.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:45 -0400)

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Set in the Congo and expressing a rage at the inability of the third world to survive post colonialisation.

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