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.
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.