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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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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 |
Character development is Naipaul's thing and the main character in this story is well developed. The story essentially follows the standard existential dilemma of what a person's purpose in life is, and how family and community intersect with that purpose. The tension between family acceptance and alienation is one of the dominant themes, as the main character, Simon, has rebelled from his family and set off on his own. Several other characters in the story have similar experiences. The larger theme is about purpose in life and how one defines that. Simon, and some of the other characters, seem adrift against the chaotic backdrop of African third world life and politics. Even those characters with clearly defined goals seem to be thwarted by the chaos around them. In the end Simon is more driven by circumstance than purpose as he escapes the crumbling town he has called home. ( )
  bness2 | May 23, 2017 |
This story of an Indian man born and raised in Africa post-WW2 varied from insightful to tragic to boring. Salim moves from his family home on the east coast to an unidentified city in central Africa which had been a Belgian colony (I suspect it is Kisangani, Zaire now DR Congo). There are distinct echos of Conrad's Heart of Darkness particularly in the first section.

I find the setting fascinating but the story is told in what I am beginning to think of as the "Booker Prize" style -- lots of description of Salim's thoughts and opinions and the action felt as if it was occurring at a distance even when it is happening to Salim himself. ( )
  leslie.98 | May 3, 2016 |
Good writing but a dull story. ( )
  ndpmcIntosh | Mar 21, 2016 |
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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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