For The Someday Book

Book Review: A Bend in the River

Posted on: July 20, 2012

A Bend in the River, by V.S. Naipaul, Vintage International, 1979, 278 pp.

V. S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, but I was not familiar with any of his work. I like to fancy myself well-read, so when I saw his book featured at the local library, I decided to give it a try. The back cover quoted the Nobel Committee’s presentation describing Naipaul as “Conrad’s heir.” While I trusted that Naipaul would not be bound by Joseph Conrad’s outdated understandings of race and colonialism, I was still a bit hesitant. While I admire Conrad’s craft, I never considered Heart of Darkness enjoyable reading. Having completed A Bend in the River, though, the comparison is apt. Naipaul’s novel took me into the post-colonial world of Africa, slowly drawing me to a lifeworld very different than my own. Then, just as slowly, it drew me out again. And, unlike Conrad, I found joy in the journey.

A Bend in the River is the story of Salim, an Indian born and raised on the east coast of Africa. He buys a shop in a river town in the interior,  in the aftermath of a post-colonial rebellion. The novel tells the story of Salim’s slow rise and fall in business, alongside the story of the town’s slow rise and fall. The town’s fortunes, along with those of Salim and the rest of the characters in the town, slowly scrape toward prosperity after the rebellion. A president’s interest creates a boon, and then paranoia and rebellion and destruction. Fortunes rise and fall, again and again.

Salim offers a fascinating perspective. I’ve read books voiced by Africans about Africa, and books voiced by Westerners about Africa, but Salim is an Indian writing about Africa—the citizen of one colony living in another colony, and writing about post-colonial life. Author Naipaul shared this perspective, being of Indian descent but born and raised in Trinidad. Throughout the book, Salim remains an outsider, an observer to the conflicts and customs of Africa. The other characters that he befriends are also outsiders—his house-servant Metty, a boy-turned-man without a tribe named Ferdinand, fellow Indian merchants Mahesh and Shoba, childhood friend from a wealthier background Indar, and Brits Raymond and Yvette. All of them live in this African world without being of it. They appreciate it in different ways, and their own fortunes are tied up in this town at the bend in the river, or in the political powers at work.

This novel is indeed a tightly-woven tapestry, a work of art in which each strand lies alongside the others to form a picture that can only be understood by stepping back and looking at the whole. Reading this book demands attention and concentration, but it is not a struggle. Unlike so many books about post-colonial Africa, Naipaul does not emphasize the cruel and the bloody, although he does not shy away from the harsh realities of violence, poverty and political upheaval. Rather than talking about suffering in Africa, Naipaul talks about life in Africa, especially for outsiders. I definitely want to read more from him, as he explores other places formerly in the British Empire.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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