A Bend in the River

by V. S. Naipaul

Paperback, 1979




New York : Vintage International, 1989, c1979.


In this incandescent novel, 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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Linus_Linus
I always find it difficult to talk about the books I really like. Especially so if it is a Naipaul book. I read The Bend again this year and found it much more ensorcelling than first time around . I guess what is so appealing about the book is its sense of diligence, a discipline which attempts to faithfully reflect the emerging world in Africa, as it is. No more no less. Perhaps, this is why, even after half a century and million more theses written on Africa, it still reflects the essence of Africa as none of them do.I suppose most paperback readers find it inane or even boring. But, bear in mind it's not a transit read. It's not a fiction of plot or story. It is a narrative of reality. And like all realities that are known to man, has no beginning or ending. It is a snapshot of a typical third world problem ie a recently independent state or culture desparately trying to hold onto something as its own in the wake of emerging post-modernism. But it never has or had anything of its own, anything that would give it an identity in the contemporary world apart from the history of having been a colony. Therefore it tries to manufacture a past – leaders, tribes, dances, cameraderie. Oh! the vanities, the denials, the insecurities, amidst all that is forming and unforming, changing choices, conflicting values. But it is what it is. Then there is the beauty of Naipaul prose. God! How it flows. Delicate, sublime, perfect yet letting the reader to make his own mind without patronizing or simplifying the sentiment. What I found most incredible in the book is the style used to pastiche the complex reality, so unhurriedly, so gracefully; as the book moves forward, it feels like a wave slowly falling and receding on a shore – adding something to the before, yet taking away something after; letting all the voices to speak on their own terms, to express their own realities to ultimately add up a grand reality that none of them can access in toto. Here is a wonderful instance – Indar is so ashamed of his third world identity that he desparately wants to trample his own past… ‘It isn’t easy to turn your back on the past. It isn’t something you can decide to do just like that. It is something you arm yourself for, or grief will ambush and destroy you. And Raymond with his first world citizenship, so much yearns for the True Africa that his own past has no bearing on his personal life. This leads to his wife's discontent and her confusion. Here's Raymond musing on Africa.. I was sitting in my room and thinking with sadness about all the things that have gone unrecorded. Do you think we can ever get to know the truth about what has happened in Africa in the last hundred or even fifty years? All the wars, all the rebellions, all the leaders, all the defeats?It doesn’t occur to you when you are reading it but as you move along, as the impressions of their characters are better formed , suddenly, somewhere in the next chapter perhaps, it occurs to you , that these two completely different men from completely different worlds are so unknowingly seeking each other’s past. They are only allowed to seek, ...Indar seducing Yvette or Raymond wanting to be Mommsen of Africa .., but never find. But they cant give up. Hence the world is what it is, always in movement.… (more)
LibraryThing member japaul22
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.
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LibraryThing member piefuchs
A perfectly written tale. I felt I was reading a fictionalized Ryzard Kapacinski - as in sentence after sentence the human condition was reduced to a few choice words. The basic story is that of a man of Indian origin - whose family knew no other life than living in Africa for several genereations - who moves to a newly independent country to setup a small shop. He proves an asute observer of the newly indepedent, and the hangers on.… (more)
LibraryThing member leslie.98
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member nandadevi
It seems to me that this is more of a reflection than a novel. Perhaps Naipaul deliberately forgoes any sense of construction in order to convey the feeling of people, ideas and aspirations being swept away by the river that seems (in his story) to arise somewhere near Conrad´s Heart of Darkness. His characters, and shreds of civilization seem to cling on - for a while - in a small town at the bend in the river. Naipaul is perhaps suggesting that at such places the current loses a little of its force, such that the sediment drops out and the trash in the water swirls around for a short while, but is always eventually caught up and swept down the river to the sea. There is some lovely writing, and some insights into Indian and African character, but the commentary on the African situation has to be read in the context of Naipaul still being an outsider, even though the history of Indians in Africa is a long and important one. I wouldn´t call this the definitive African/Indian novel.

I read Naipaul´s ´A House for Mr Biswas´ nearly fourty years ago, and I still remember the force of it, the characterisation of Indian life in Trinidad. I suspect that his ´Bend in the River´ will start to fade for me in a couple of days. If you do read it, try to do so in conjunction with Michela Wrong´s ´In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz´, a devastating history of colonial and contemporary Zaire. In the end ´Bend..´ seems to me to be a flawed novel, perhaps because it reflected a little too much of Naipaul´s own character, his unease as it were with the world and himself, and too little of everything and everyone else.
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LibraryThing member thierry
Set in a newly independent and still unstable Central African country, putatively the former Belgian Congo, the story tells of a East African South Asian trying to establish a general trading store in an isolated provincial city amidst civil war, rising national consciousness, and loyalties challenged and shifting. The narrator, who remains unnamed, comes across as being disconnected from the world he settles in. This sense of detachment from the soil and from the story is quite effective as an illustration of the transient nature of the human experience while we try so hard to establish roots.… (more)
LibraryThing member annbury
A profoundly involving novel, and a profoundly pesimisstic one. I found myself caring very much about what happened to the main characters, even though I knew it was not likely to be good, and even though I didn't like them very much. Hard to get away from, this book.
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
It’s a story told by a character who comes from an Indian family settled in eastern Africa, and becomes a shop owner in a remote village on ‘a bend on the river’ in what seems to be the Congo. Through his eyes, we witness the changes the country undergoes during post-colonial times. The novel begins in the times right after the fight for independence and finishes with the times of terror instilled by the new president. It seems that the narrator, a secular Muslim, Salim, represents typical views of Indians in that part of Africa, but not necessarily the views of the author.
The book must have been a revelation when it was published. I have read a few books about Africa since, but I guess at that time it must have been very fresh.
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LibraryThing member ffortsa
An ethnic Indian born and raised on the coast of Africa moves inland to run a store at a town in the bend of the river. From this vantage, we see the struggle of post-colonial Africa to establish a viable state, amidst the tribal and economic pressures of the time. Mobutu is never named but the history is clear.

The main character is curiously passive, as are many of the people around him. They wait through uprisings and prosperity, the hope of progress and the increasingly anarchic shadow of the 'big man'.… (more)
LibraryThing member debnance
Salim, an ethnic Indian living in Africa, buys a business from a friend and tries to make a go of it in a spot on an African river, a prime spot for commerce, during a bad time in Africa’s history. He struggles to keep going with his business while things in Africa deteriorate from bad to worse. Salim, in the meantime, struggles within himself to figure out what is right and what is wrong in a very confusing world.… (more)
LibraryThing member joshberg
I'd looked forward to reading this novel for a while, and was mildly disappointed when I finally got around to it. Although Naipaul's skill is impressive, the book lacks heart, with the exception of the Yvette portion in the middle and the powerful events of the end. Salim's one violent episode is inconsistent and hard to swallow, as is Yvette's reaction to it. I wanted to care more about the characters; I found myself enjoying 20 pages, and then being bored by the next 20. To me, Naipaul's Half A Life is a better read.… (more)
LibraryThing member strandbooks
This is the second book I've read by V.S. Naipaul. The story focuses on an unnamed African nation and the tumultous changes it experiences. Despite the descriptions by the second half of the book it was hard for me to visualize the country, but I think that is more my lack of understanding then the writing. It also took me a while to figure out the time period but I think that was on purpose to show how Africa continues as it always was despite other civilizations trying to make their mark.… (more)
LibraryThing member Tanya-dogearedcopy
I was having a hard time getting a handle on this book. Everything felt awkward. I thought maybe it was because there was a foreign sensibility that I couldn't sympathize with. Then there was the fact I could not figure out what the author was trying to say or; why the characters were doing what they were doing. I then went back to the opening lines of the book, "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it" and understood them to dictate the existential tone of the book. I re-read certain passages and the whole of the novel came a bit more in focus for me. Characters within the book, even the country itself, seek to recreate themselves along new paradigms, often founded on a premise no stronger than not wanting what immediately came before. Salim, an indifferent Muslim, foresees the dissolution of his East Coast life and decides to completely break free of the moribund situation by traveling into the interior of Africa and set up shop there. Mahesh and Shoba, excommunicated from their traditional Hindu families, live according to the dictates of beauty. The Big Man, in his series of reformations for the country, rejects the Western concept of religion as "not for us," and attempts to create an Africanized version of modernity (the irony that his concept of modernity is Western in premise is another thing!) The sad thing about the novel is that the destinies each had hoped for and worked toward, turn into rather dismal fates. Salim eventually sees his shop pass from his hands into that of a mechanic’s under the nationalization edicts. Shoba finds herself marred by peroxide bleach and finds herself unable to function beyond the confines of her home. The Big Man’s government became crippled by corruption and was overthrown by Liberation forces. Each bears responsibility for his or her outcome as there is no sense of divinity that intervenes.

There is a pessimistic tone that starts to creep in that eventually permeates the mood of the book. The water hyacinths that float romantically down the river are actually a nuisance weed choking the waterway and impossible to get rid of. The newly applied paint drips onto the ground relegating the fresh look to a sloppy one. The European settlements turn into ruins; The cities are bordered by high garbage mounds; The home of Raymond and Yvette, which seemed magical in the dark, is exposed as shoddy in daylight. Every attempt to create order out of chaos seems to degenerate or be revealed as futile. This pessimism runs as a corollary to the existentialism and lends a resigned feel to the novel.

This is one of those strange books that I can’t say I love, but I know I will; re-read, knowing I’ll get more out of it each time I do so.
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LibraryThing member tortoisebook
Having finished this book I am now going over it in my mind, bringing it all together and trying to work out what I make of it. To begin with, it is beautifully written and describes Africa and its characters so wonderfully that I cared about them and wanted to know how life panned out for them. On the other hand, the book didn't excite me, I wasn't eager to pick it up again after putting it down to start with, although I enjoyed it more as the book went on. I felt that the first chapter, which dealt with the uprising, didn't pull a big enough punch for me. I wasn't able to grasp the full horror of the situation or the amount of danger the characters may or may not have been in.

The book has many layers which are still relevant today. The struggle of ex-colonial countries to find their identity, the charismatic leaders and the bloody violence and fear used to control the population. Above all, what comes through is the impact all this has on ordinary people trying to 'carry on' with their lives and get through day by day. The lack of history is another theme, Indar prescribes trampling on history and not looking back and this is emphasised at the end when Metty talks about the rebels wanting to kill everyone and start again. History should not be forgotten, mistakes should be learnt from, it cannot be wiped out and there will never be a clean slate to start again from.

The end of the book left me intrigued. The characters' stories are left unfinished - what happened to Yvette and Raymond, were they at the dinner party in London with Indar? What about Ferdinand, was he talking about his own fate at the end? Is it happily ever after for Salim? Perhaps they all just 'carry on'. I suppose the symbolism of the last paragraph refers to Africa being cut adrift by its colonial masters, with its people not quite realising their fate until it is too late.
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LibraryThing member andreablythe
When faced with potential calamity in his hometown on the East Coast of Africa, an Indian man uproots his existence and travels to a remote African village situated at the bend in the river. There he becomes a shop keeper and over the course of many years weathers the tides of poverty, prosperity, and political fluctuation that affect the town.

The story is the kind of life is lifelike tales in which a character sits at the center of events without having much impact on them. The main character is thoughtful and pondering. He contemplates the life he's chosen, the shifting political poles, and his personal interactions with a kind of emotional distance.

I'd say this book was good, interesting, and worth a read, but it's not one that drew any passion from me either for the language or the story.
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LibraryThing member JBreedlove
A well written and insightful novel about the turmoils in a central African nation after independence. Naipul writes of an Indian merchant trying to do business in a rapidly evolving culture and time.
LibraryThing member Socrmom78
“People lived as they had always done; there was no break between past and present. All that had happened in the past was washed away; there was always only the present. It was as though, as a result of some disturbance in the heavens, the early morning light was always receding into the darkness and men lived in a perpetual dawn.”

A Bend in the River follows the story of Salim, who retreats from his ancestral home on the western coast of Africa and takes over a small trading goods store deep in the wilds of central Africa, at a bend in the river where civilization and the lack thereof intersect. Salim takes this job for several reasons: uprisings in his hometown, escaping from an unwanted engagement, and wanting to make something of himself. He is warned by the previous owner of the store, Nazruddin, to know ‘when to get out’. Salim arrives to see he will be living on the fringes of existence, in a town that has gone back to bush and rubble after colonial rule. He befriends other ‘foreigners’ who live in the town, and when a slave boy, Metty, is sent to him from his parents, he employs Metty in the shop.

Salim is also responsible for Ferdinand, a boy from the jungles who will be attending school in the town. Salim jealously watches while Ferdinand gets the schooling, education and opportunities that are closed to him. When the country is taken over by an anonymous President, new things begin to happen in the town. Modernization arrives in the form of the “Domain”, a series of modern buildings and a ‘polytechnic’, where Ferdinand gets to attend more school and Salim’s friend Indar, also from the upper-class coast, arrives as a speaker. Unlike Ferdinand, who blindly spouts the dogma he is taught at school, Indar has concerns about the direction of the country, as Salim has had all along. Through Indar, Salim meets Yvette, the young wife of Raymond, a man whom the President favors. Salim begins a passionate affair with Yvette, but when Raymond’s favor drops with the President, things go sour for Salim and Yvette. At the same time, things also start to go sour for the town, too. There are tribal uprisings and attacks against the President and his minions. Shop owners who have been there forever sell out and leave. Salim begins to feel the nervousness of being trapped, and decides to visit Nazruddin in London, where he becomes engaged to his daughter Kareisha. Upon returning to settle accounts in the town, he finds that the President has sold his shop to someone else, and he is under suspicion from the police. When he is imprisoned, Ferdinand, who has risen to the post of commissioner, bails him out of jail and puts him on the first steamer out of town before the arrival of the President, who is coming to execute everyone of prominence in the town.

One of the main themes of the book is a Latin saying inscribed on the town lycee building, Semper Aliquid Novi (‘always something new’). It is so appropriate to the seeming impermanence of settlements in Africa. The ruins of colonial buildings are still visible in the town, which begins to grow anew after independence and again under the Presidential rule, and Salim realizes that the current civilization he is living in could just as easily be reduced to rubble:

“The ruins, spread over so many acres, seemed to speak of a final catastrophe. But the civilization wasn’t dead. It was the civilization I existed in and in fact was still working towards. And that could make for an odd feeling: to be among the ruins was to have your time-sense unsettled. You felt like a ghost not from the past, but from the future. You felt that your life and ambition had already been lived out for you and you were looking at the relics of that life. You were in a place where the future had come and gone.”

Nothing seems to stay the same in Africa. Even the rise and fall of people in the President’s favor, such as Raymond’s rise and fall from grace, and the improbable rise of Ferdinand, an African raised in the jungle, show that worth as a human being can also be changed at a moment’s notice, and someone with the President’s ear one day can be ignored and forgotten the next.

Another element of the story I found fascinating was Naipaul’s treatment of African history. Salim says that, as Africans, “we never asked why; we never recorded”, since natives were unable to read and write. They relied on the oral tradition of passing stories down among family members. Salim, in talking about a story he heard from his grandfather, notes that “without my own memory of the old man’s story I suppose that would have been a piece of history lost forever.” Africa has to rely on educated Europeans to record history; what they know of their own history comes from these sources, The problem lies with the inevitable gaps in in this recorded history. Raymond wrote intellectual histories of Africa, but they were based on dry European documentation, and not actual African experiences. Salim argues that no one could really write the history of Africa without talking to actual Africans (and I tend to agree).

A lot of noise has been made in other reviews about Naipaul’s treatment of women in this novel. Women seemed to fall into one of two categories: modern working woman, and object of obsession. Ferdinand’s mother, Zabeth, is a single mom who runs her own business in the bush, and Salim’s fiancée, Kareisha, is still single at 30 and becomes a pharmacist. Shoba, who is idolized by her husband Mahesh, and Yvette, who really seems to get around, aren’t portrayed as particularly ambitious women, who rely on the men around them to bring them their security. I did not enjoy the scene where Salim loses it and beats up Yvette, but I don’t think it says anything overarchingly negative about all women everywhere.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. And my enjoyment was unexpected, and definitely wasn’t enjoyment in the traditional sense. The story was dark, foreboding, and at times apocalyptic in its story of the rise, fall and disappearance of civilizations and rule in the wilds of Africa. Not usually my thing at all, but I have to admit I was sucked into the story, and was actually begging Salim to do as Nazruddin told him and “get out” when things started to go badly in town. The ending was a bit ambiguous for my taste, but that's probably the way Naipaul wanted it to go down. This book should remind all of us how lucky we are as Americans to have stability, democracy and education in our country.
Grade: B+
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LibraryThing member jmoncton
This is a book that I really wanted to enjoy. Listed on the 1001 list, Nobel prize winning author, a book that takes place in another country, audiobook read by Simon Vance and an ebook version to read along with. But this story never drew me in and I think I attribute it to Naipaul's style. The book is about Salim, an Indian Muslim who lives in a small town at the 'bend of the river' in Africa and owns a sundry shop that sells everyday supplies. Salim is an outcast. He is not African and the country (unnamed in the book) is undergoing change and is trying to distance itself from the 'White Man' and at the same time keep some of it's heritage while moving into the modern 20th century. There was lots of opportunity for character development and conflict, but the story is mostly told through Salim's thoughts - very little action and very little dialog. At the end of the book, I couldn't really describe Salim - was he a good person? What were his strengths? It wasn't so much a matter of not liking the main character as feeling overall ambivalent. People rave about Naipaul as an author so I might try another book... but not for awhile.… (more)
LibraryThing member mykl-s
A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul (1992)
LibraryThing member puabi
It is hard to get involved with the characters emotionally. I suppose it is well written but ultimately it does not move one.
LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
"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".
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LibraryThing member delta351
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member Emma_Manolis
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.
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LibraryThing member TerriBooks
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member augustau
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.… (more)



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