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A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

A Bend in the River (original 1979; edition 2002)

by V.S. Naipaul

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Title:A Bend in the River
Authors:V.S. Naipaul
Info:Picador (2002), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 336 pages
Collections:Your library, To read
Tags:Fiction, 1001

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A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul (1979)

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Salim, the Indian narrator, is looking for his place in the world and observing other men, who he presumes are doing the same, in part, because his place is relative to them. Is he more or less powerful? Richer or poorer? Better or worse?

I say "men" because women's place, to him, depend on men. Whether this reflects the time of the novel, the point of view of the narrator, or the sexism of the author isn't clear. I'd like to rule out the last choice (other reviewers did not) because anyone who writes so well deserves the benefit of the doubt. Part of writing well is that your unreliable narrator shouldn't be so obviously . . . well, unreliable, and Salim is not a caricature. As an Indian who grew up outside of India, primarily on the coast of Africa, that he should be in doubt about his place in the world makes sense.

Is the title a metaphor for something? Is the river the flow of time? The bend, some kind of kink in the flow? Or is it the literal location of much of the story? Does Africa symbolize a part of the world looking for its place? That both Salim and the unnamed African country are seeking stability, so in step with each other, the former trying to go with the flow of the latter until it becomes impossible, tempts us to read it as symbolism to please our English teachers and to justify the author's Nobel prize. I prefer to read it as realism. Salim may be required to make sense of his world but I am under no such obligation.

Salim contemptuously observes the fake Orientalism of British decor intending to suggest India and mentions Indians rejecting Nehru and Gandhi as their "great men." Similarly, he observes the fake "domain" meant to convey the modernization of Africa, the fake museum of African art of Father Huismans, the fake European-style trappings of civilization which is just a framework for corruption. But his life is also fake. His affair with Yvette is an attempt to puff himself up and when the puffery ceases to be convincing to him, he turns on her. He sees Yvette as a social climber who made a wrong decision (choosing the doomed Raymond) but the reader (at least THIS one) sees her as genuinely caring for him and for Raymond as well.

Is Salim's view of Africa and Africans racist? How about Naipaul's? Does he reject Indian stereotypes but buy African ones? On the one hand, Salim stereotypes everyone, because he's trying to figure out the world and where he belongs in it. On the other hand, he cares about others. He tries to help Ferdinand, even while observing his identity crises. He even tries to help Metty, his "slave" which turns out to mean his obligation more than his servant. This even after Metty betrays him.

In the interstices of the story itself, Salim has this epiphany which he returns to on occasion: "Men lived to acquire experience; the quality of the experience was immaterial; pleasure and pain--and above all, pain--had no meaning; to possess pain was as meaningless as to chase pleasure." It's almost Hindu in nature, his true Indian self peeking through while he tries on other roles. ( )
  Gimley_Farb | Jul 6, 2015 |
An Indian-African takes his family's servant and leaves the coast to settle upriver at an inland outpost. He begins his life as a merchant.Much of the book is an examination of the uprooted who profit but mostly lose when stranded in an unstable country amid corruption and greed. I enjoyed the descriptions of the constant jockeying for security that the residents of this community have to endure. The plot is secondary to the generalized fear that settles over everyone- people in bed listening for trucks in the night, and characters burying their money in the backyard.Recommended for those interested in exile/ immigration tensions.
  augustau | Apr 9, 2015 |
Naipaul did a pretty smooth job in this post colonial Africa novel.
I thought there was a good description of central African society in the 70's. Good caricatures of the various characters in the novel. These types are present in each society. I felt a little bit of Heart of Darkness here, but not as intense. ( )
  delta351 | Mar 16, 2014 |
Naipaul portrays an Africa that is caught in a pattern of corruption, meaninglessness, and failure. The characters in this novel can't seem to develop relationships; everyone seems to wander in isolation, constantly being knocked down and out by circumstances. Altogether, it's pretty depressing, certainly does nothing for the tourism industry in Africa. On the other hand, there's something about this novel that keeps your attention - maybe just the hope that things will get better. I can't say that I really enjoyed the book, but it had a certain fascination. ( )
  TerriBooks | Feb 21, 2014 |
A writer is said to be an outsider. It is easy to understand how V.S. Naipaul could meet this requirement: he came to England, from Trinidad, in 1950, at the age of 18. I would imagine, that this would have been a difficult transition to make, particularly at such a delicate age.

All the main characters in 'A Bend in the River', are stateless drifters; each time they appear to have settled, a cataclysm occurs to dislodge them. Sometimes, a character appears to have 'won' and goes off in triumph, only to turn up, a chapter or two down the line, back at square one. This is a depressing state of affairs but, what Naipaul captures beautifully, is the pleasure that we humans can get by seeing that others only appear to be racing passed us on a trajectory to success. Salim, the storey teller in this tale, is a likeable chap; a bit like you or me, and we are able to entertain these triumphs of others failures, whilst still being sufficiently an outsider as to be able to recognise the mean spiritedness of such an attitude.

It does not need me to praise Naipaul's literary style: this has been done by many of far greater standing than myself, but I am pleased to concur with the view that he is a real talent; however, I did find the end a little rushed. Salim's return to Africa, and even more so his decision to remain there for some time, seem at odds with his stateless nature. This is a minor niggle in an excellent novel which I truly enjoyed. ( )
  the.ken.petersen | Dec 20, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
V. S. Naipaulprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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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