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A Bend in the River Paperback – International Edition, March 13, 1989
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"Confirms Naipaul's position as one of the best writers now at work." —Walter Clemons, Newsweek
"The sweep of Naipaul's imagination, the brilliant fictional frame that expresses it, are in my view without equal today." —Elizabeth Hardwick
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It is through Salim’s eyes and experiences—an outsider—that readers are given a vivid and realistic description of a nation’s hopes and challenges during a period of immense and new change. It is a portrait of Africa that rivals many of the works of Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), Heart of Darkness (1899), being the most obvious, which was set during the Colonial period of “the dark Continent.”
Among the strengths Naipaul brings to A Bend in the River are the numerous, distinctive character studies he giftedly creates. Among the major characters other than Salim himself, there are Shoba and Mahesh, “an extraordinarily good-looking couple” also trying to set up a shop and enterprise with whom Salim befriends. Another fascinating and most notably different couple are Yvette and Raymond. Raymond zealously respects and works hard for the new president awaiting a reward that is always promised but seemingly without realization while Yvette feels restless and “encumbered” in an equally unfulfilling relationship. Metty, with “exotic… African connections” because he comes from a group of “house slaves,” becomes useful to Salim as both an assistant in Salim’s shop and flat, but who also lessens Salim’s “solitude” and makes “the empty months more bearable” as Salim tries to raise a business from the “wreckage.” Zabeth is a strong-willed, old, and fearsome woman who lives in the bush country; a merchant and an alleged “magician or sorceress” who travels alone through rugged terrain for days to get to Salim’s shop and back home with goods to sell to her local people. She also introduces to Salim to her son, Ferdinand, a naïve stranger outside of his remote home who Zabeth insists attend the lycée and be watched over by Salim. The school is run by Father Huismans, a Belgian priest, who collects African artifacts to preserve the nation’s past which he fears is “dying or about to die.” To him, “Africa was a wonderful place, full of new things.”
For Salim, there is little pleasure and even less rest in Africa. His personal joys are reduced to occasional beers and food, conversations with a few friends, brothel women for whose company he pays, and eventually an ill-fated affair. (It is in the depiction of Salim’s affair that readers are likely to perceive what many would view as misogyny, today.) It is through Salim’s keen senses that he watches, helplessly, as the promise of a new Africa begins to erode due to the new regime and a president who defines success much as did the Europeans but without their intellect and vision. Salim’s conclusion: “…the war, which we had thought dead, was all at once around us.”
Naipaul’s writing is without sensation and sentiment although filled with telling detail. He places the reader firmly and completely into Salim’s hands as readers feel and experience people moving “rapidly from depression to optimism and back down again;” the same fate of Africa’s hopes and dreams. As such, Africa, itself, is the biggest and most important character portrayed in A Bend in the River.
Those already familiar with the immediate post-colonial history of Africa read A Bend in the River with a certain degree of sadness, aware of how things must end for those inhabitants (and especially outsiders) without power under whichever regime is in power. The race, the backgrounds, the faces, the religion, the language, and the origins of the masters and the slaves may change over time, but equal distribution of wealth and freedom remains elusive (even to this day). Ironically, this and the floating water hyacinths (to which Naipaul frequently calls attention) following the currents of the big river are the one constant in Africa in this amazingly well written, insightful, and captivating novel.
Salim’s family could not afford to send him to university in England. He had tired of the crowded conditions in the home with the blended families, pessimistic about the future, and the volatility that was inevitable with his country’s independence from Britain.
A wealthy family friend, Nazruddin, sold Salim a store located deep into the interior of Africa for a minimal amount. In addition, Salim promised to marry Nazruddin’s eldest daughter, Kareisha.
Tired of his family’s old-fashioned arrangement of marriages, Salim bolted before the banns of matrimony were settled, before meeting Kareisha, but knew Nazruddin believed him loyal and that he’d keep his vow.
After a long and tiring journey to the interior country, near a bend in the river, Salim discovered his store had lay derelict for some time. The country had gained their independence, but the entire town was in disarray. Villagers had suffered so much from the intruders—Europeans, Arabs, and other Africans. The people had destroyed everything reminding them of the abuse and their enslavement during colonial time.
Salim became familiar with the ex-patriates and other Southern Asians living in the town, and Ali, a servant in Salim’s family arrived. Ali would later be known as Metty (Métis) with the locals. He learned the patois and became Salim’s Custom’s Clerk. Salim treated him like a family member.
Salim quickly became recognized and respected by other traders with goods to be bought and sold. One of the traders, was Zabeth, an astute business woman and known conjurer, who Salim admired. Zabeth arrived once a month with her entourage to make purchases for her fishing village. A year or more later, after Zabeth developed rapport and trust with Salim, she asked that he watch over her fifteen year-old son, Ferdinand, who would attend a nearby lycée.
Salim’s insecurities flared whenever someone had success and prestige: He became preoccupied with Ferdinand, Zabeth’s teenage son, who exuded strength of character; a young man, calm, confident and in control of his feelings, whom Salim discerned would someday become a man of great power and change in Africa. This made Salim feel inferior, worthless, and eventually resentful. Yet one day, Ferdinand would become his savior; and Indar, a former wealthy neighborhood friend of Salim’s, from East Africa, who studied in the UK. Indar made Salim feel ‘backwards.’ Indar had seen the world, Salim had not. Yet Indar had his own unhappiness with life in the UK and in the States. When he reunited with Salim in the interior, he had come to town as a guest of the ‘Big Man.’
Through Indar, Salim met Yvette, a Belgian, married to an Englishman, the ‘Big Man’s’ historian and speech writer. Indar had had an affair with Yvette before leaving Africa. Salim became her lover afterwards. Salim had used prostitutes until he met Yvette; a new stimulation. He was enthralled with her. Then an obsession sprouted with her that led to him physically abusing her when he found she and her husband were leaving the country.
Later, Salim visited Nazruddin in England, after an absence of about eight years. Nazruddin had bought several homes in England. Again, the feelings of inadequacy returned to Salim; he thought his life would always be unsatisfactory. Yet, he met Nazruddin’s eldest daughter, Kareisha, now a pharmacist, whom appeared amiable.
Before Salim flew home to Africa, at a stopover in Belgium. He slept with a prostitute.
On his return, he discovered changes had been made, which would eventually include betrayal by Metty. The ‘Big Man’ had instituted a takeover; all businesses would now be owned by its African citizens. In addition, he distrusted the educated.
According to Metty and circulating rumors, Africa would revert back to its old ways before colonialism. Blood would be shed.
Salim knew there was no going back to his home on the East Coast of Africa. Changes had been made there too.
In symbolism, the bend in the river, I think, is used as a sign of changes, boundaries and contrast between civilization (the townspeople) and those outside (the villagers.). In addition, water is constantly moving and flowing, and the world mutable.
I gave this book four stars. I thought the chapter on Indar was too long and of no interest to me. Yet Salim is interesting because it involves the many changes and dispositions in his life: his courage to leave home in his early twenties and initiate a successful business, and the negative changes such as his disregard for intimacy and warmth, and instead seeking prostitutes, his insecurities, his one obsession, which was not love, but lust, and his not seeming to have a plan to change his life and become more successful. Salim was like the water hyacinths, beautiful, but fixed, and difficult to move or change.
Top international reviews
“AFRICA WAS MY HOME, had been the home of my family for centuries. But we came from the east coast, and that made the difference. The coast was not truly African. It was an Arab-Indian-Persian-Portuguese place, and we who lived there were really people of the Indian Ocean.”
When civil unrest threatens, Salim heads into the interior to take up a business opportunity offered by a family friend. This is a shop selling bits of everything in a town beside a river in an unnamed central African country. Salim’s town is at the heart of both country and continent, but - in an irony characteristic of the book - seems very much a marginalised place. Despite the town’s central location, in terms of the river it lies right at the end of navigation, as far up stream as a boat can reach. The east coast might be not truly African, but Salim’s town in the middle is not truly African either. It’s a peripheral place, with a turbulent population riven by all kinds of allegiances. This situation is reflected in the real world. Think of the great cities of America, for example, and you’ll see that the top two - New York, Los Angeles - are ports on the coast, where there is the greatest interchange with other places. America’s geographical centre is in rural Kansas, close to the town of Lebanon, with a population of just over 200.
Pondering on the book after I’d finished it, I thought about a line in a Lindisfarne song about another town by a river:
“The fog on the Tyne is all mine.”
There’s a passage in A Bend in the River involving river mist.
“In the darkness of river and forest you could be sure only of what you could see –and even on a moonlight night you couldn’t see much. When you made a noise –dipped a paddle in the water –you heard yourself as though you were another person. The river and the forest were like presences, and much more powerful than you. You felt unprotected, an intruder. In the daylight –though the colours could be very pale and ghostly, with the heat mist at times suggesting a colder climate –you could imagine the town being rebuilt and spreading.”
The town is little more than a fleeting daydream. People think they own the fog, but the fog belongs to no one - or it belongs to everyone if you wish to look at things from a warmer perspective. Admittedly, a warmer perspective is not very evident in A Bend in the River.
Perhaps a warmer perspective comes from the sense that finishing the book, people might not be so quick to differentiate insiders from outsiders, people who belong from those who don’t. With the centre in the same place as the periphery, with home presented as such a nebulous concept, we might ironically become more welcoming and tolerant.
I read this as part of a reading group and it was generally not liked by any.
I agree with the agent mentioned in the preface!
Written from the prospective of an ethnically Indian man, raised and living in an unnamed African country in the 1970s.
Some disturbing passages, other confusing, implied areas.