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A Bend in the River – V.S. Naipaul

23 Apr

BendySet in an unnamed African country, the book is narrated by Salim, a young man from an Indian family of traders long resident on the coast. He believes The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it. So he has taken the initiative; left the coast; acquired his own shop in a small, growing city in the continent’s remote interior and is selling sundries – little more than this and that, really – to the natives. This spot, this ‘bend in the river’, is a microcosm of post-colonial Africa at the time of Independence: a scene of chaos, violent change, warring tribes, ignorance, isolation and poverty. And from this rich landscape emerges one of the author’s most potent works – a truly moving story of historical upheaval and social breakdown.

No matter what upheavals happen between nations and cultures or how much it changes hands and identity, there is always a human habitation remaining at the strategic bend in the river.  That anchor is the setting for this book of observance which is a feel of a story for and of all ages.

Salim’s unnamed post colonial country exists in a vacuum in a confusion of radical thoughts and ideas, it struggles to find a new identity melded from its ancient roots and recent history, yet is in reactionary turmoil and mistrust over everything.  The beliefs of the population in themselves, their history, religions and collective citizenship have been replaced by vulnerability and a loss of the perceived identity they have had for years.

This is the backdrop for the story so it is unsurprising that it’s crammed full of perspectives on the basic situations of each character and also explores the wider global place of Africans.  What makes this situation so intriguing is that everybody is seeking an identity, hunting for some peace of mind despite the dangerous and bloody games of power and corruption played out by the rebels and government – the spiritual successor to the conquests by both Eastern and Western powers.

Naipaul questions what it means to be a ‘new African’, how much each person is influenced through their ideas and upbringing and what it means to be truly free.  The writing is languid, it’s a book that’s elaborate and complex, it takes its time and is played out slowly with emphasis on thought rather than action and conveys well the inner conflict of a people set free yet still firmly ties to the horrors of oppressing forces.

The characters frequently change their minds over their own identities and their views on others, they all seem insecure and uncomfortable as themselves, clinging on to outdated thoughts.  This sense of not belonging fits in well with the transitory nature of human life and existence by the river as well.  I felt I couldn’t really sympathise about the characters not because of the situation that occur but because each is for him or herself and the selfishness is not often superseded by acts of kindness for its own sake.

This ever-present overlap of colonialism and traditional ideas gives the immediate impression of a transition, of old wounds and the ghosts of a decayed past.   There is a cyclical feel to the book, not in terms of story – although some aspects nod at this – but in wider terms of world history and mistakes being repeated all over again with little being learnt.  It also taps into that ancient existential fear of the lack of control over life and the need for a sense of place with the community, of belonging.

…to possess pain was as meaningless as to chase pleasure.

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32 Comments

Posted by on 23/04/2016 in Fiction

 

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32 responses to “A Bend in the River – V.S. Naipaul

  1. Andrea Stephenson

    23/04/2016 at 17:06

    Not a type of book I’d usually read Ste, though you usually tempt me nonetheless with your reviews 🙂

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    • Ste J

      24/04/2016 at 08:02

      It’s a short book at 325 pages and well worth a read. I hadn’t read much in the way of literature focussing on the post colonial effects on African people themselves so it was fascinating to see the struggles and worries of a character like Salim and learn a little myself.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  2. Love, Life and Whatever

    23/04/2016 at 17:24

    What a fascinating backdrop… Would love to expose my imagination into this realm. Sounds appealing though.

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    • Ste J

      24/04/2016 at 08:34

      I think you’ll get a lot out of it, despite its slow nature it is a quick read and a panoramic view of Africa after colonialism.

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  3. The Book Haven

    24/04/2016 at 02:48

    There were three books by Naipaul I always wanted to read: A House for Mr Biswas, India: A Million Mutinies Now and A Bend in the River. I have read the first two but yet to read A Bend in the River.

    I thought it could be complex and slow paced with more depth; you’ve confirmed it. Would like to read this sometime soon.

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    • Ste J

      24/04/2016 at 08:15

      I was recently recommended A House for Mr Biswas which is next on my Naipaul reading list. There’s a lot to this book, a constant re-evaluation of life and what drives people, it’s an interesting study.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  4. shoshibookblog

    24/04/2016 at 12:38

    This has been on my wish-list for a while, without me knowing much about it except for the author’s name. Thank you for the great review, it’s a good reminder to get me to push it up the reading pile.

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    • Ste J

      24/04/2016 at 14:09

      I felt I would have enjoyed it even more if I could have strung more free hours together. Be careful moving your reading pile too often, you don’t want an avalanche.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  5. shadowoperator

    24/04/2016 at 16:19

    My friend, while the topic you have chosen is very interesting to me on its own, I have a personal remark to make, which I hope you won’t take in the wrong way. Your writing is always worth reading, but I have to say that this is the best post, in terms of writing and prose essay form, that I have ever read of yours. I don’t know whether that’s evidence of special inspiration in the book you chose or not, but I hesitate to put the quality of your essay at Naipaul’s door, since you were the one who wrote it. Kudos! And once again (it’s a gorgeous sunny day here, 65 F), Happy Spring!

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    • Ste J

      25/04/2016 at 08:54

      Well, I wasn’t expecting that! Thank you very much, I wrote this to the backdrop of a marathon of Judge Judy episodes so that may have had something to do with the writing hehe, or perhaps it’s more likely that your writing style has had an effect on me through these past years. My actual reading f the book has been somewhat fragmented over about three weeks which is a bit criminal but sometimes I can’t avoid it, I am glad the post did it justice though, proof that aimless wandering and note taking is the right direction for me.

      65F is pretty much our summer, as soon as we get temperatures like that the whole country goes lethargic. Today its threatening rain again, Happy Spring indeed!

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  6. clarepooley33

    24/04/2016 at 23:09

    I know the author by name only as I’ve not got round to reading his books yet. Your review makes me think of some of George Orwell’s books based in Africa/Asia with that bleak feel to the writing.

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    • Ste J

      25/04/2016 at 09:05

      Strangely my reading paths haven’t taken me to anywhere near Orwell’s Africa and Asia based work yet which is strange now I think about it, Naipaul’s writing does feel bleak in the sense of repeating cycles but mostly there is a sense of struggle against the acceptance of that fate and the need to find something more. It’s introspection is what makes it so fascinating but Orwell sometimes grinds the reader down (Keep the Aspidistra Flying), Naipaul is able to keep a better balance between the cynicism and hope.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • clarepooley33

        25/04/2016 at 23:32

        I think I might like the book. I find Orwell’s lack of hope quite depressing.

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        • Ste J

          27/04/2016 at 08:32

          He isn’t the cheeriest of chaps, that’s probably why I haven’t picked up one of his books in a while, although I did look through Homage to Catalonia the other day before deciding in a different direction.

          Liked by 1 person

           
          • clarepooley33

            27/04/2016 at 23:19

            I have Homage to Catalonia on my ‘waiting to be read’ bookshelf. The happiest Orwell book I’ve read is Keep the Aspidistra Flying which I found quite amusing.

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            • Ste J

              28/04/2016 at 09:08

              Interestingly I struggled with that one the most, at the time I was a part timer, eating one meal a day but luckily had the internet so I could at least amuse myself with cats falling over when not reading. After The Road to Wigan Pier I am hoping that Homage is just as incisive, which I am sure it will be.

              Liked by 1 person

               
              • clarepooley33

                29/04/2016 at 02:08

                I can understand you struggling with the book if you read it while you had such difficulties in your life. The protagonist is such an idiot! I probably enjoyed it more as I was able to have enough to eat and could regard him as I do some of the pretentious young men my daughters, nieces and nephews introduce to me – with indulgent scorn.

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  7. macjam47

    26/04/2016 at 12:46

    Fantastic review, Steve. You have a wonderful manner of writing reviews. I’ve not heard of the author nor of the book. The cover is stunning.

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    • Ste J

      27/04/2016 at 08:26

      I was exploring stroies from Africa after reviewing the Soyinka book from a few months ago and typically the only one I could find in the shop was the one written by a non African but nevertheless makes a powerful statement and well worth a read. I sometimes do question my style of writing about books, so thank you for liking my way.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  8. Christy Birmingham

    26/04/2016 at 18:44

    The discussion of ghosts of the past and colonialism is one that seems to come up again and again yet it sounds like this book gives a compelling way of talking about the issues. Thank you for such a thorough account of the book.

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    • Ste J

      27/04/2016 at 09:59

      This is the first book that I’ve read that really explores the subject and I am glad it was this one as it spends plenty of time plumbing the depths of thought and fear about the future, it has intrigued me to the thoughts of other authors and how they may differ, it’s a whole new sub genre to review, yay!

      Liked by 1 person

       
  9. Al

    28/04/2016 at 07:44

    Sounds like human nature at it’s most wanting. I wonder if more could be done with it, or if that would have made it more of a mish-mash and spoiled the way it was written.

    Every shop on the bend in the river sees more than it tells. The first thing I think of when I read a mention of a bend in a river is Love in the Time of Cholera. What was seen on the river at the end of the book, and a shop on the bend that saw this, and who dropped the bodies in, with the sorrow of the people.

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    • Ste J

      28/04/2016 at 10:02

      It could have been broader in a cultural sense but that would have diluted the ideas down and left the book with less impact.

      Love in the Time was an immense book, I loved how the river and its banks changed with the characters throughout the time. There is a sense hear of that evolution, although of a more cyclical nature. Shop work has never been more sexy than seen through a literary lense lol.

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  10. Liz

    28/04/2016 at 13:06

    I read Naipaul’s In a Free State ages ago – what a stunning book that is, and I always intended to pick up more of his work. You have reminded me of this, thank you, and A Bend in the River is now on the list… 🙂

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    • Ste J

      30/04/2016 at 14:49

      Another one of Naipaul’s to add to my list as well, I can’t wait for us both to get stuck in to his back catalogue now.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  11. anna amundsen

    03/05/2016 at 15:02

    This entry feels different, unlike any of your other ones. I do agree with shadowoperator – it is the best so far. 🙂
    Naipaul keeps waiting on it’s turn, I am afraid. I would love to read but, at the moment, the work is overwhelming.. I will start to despair or worry soon.

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    • Ste J

      05/05/2016 at 09:32

      How interesting, I didn’t change my approach in any way for this one, I am glad you like it though, hopefully I can work out what I did and do it again. The beauty of books is that they are patient and you are in for a treat, sorry to hear work is keeping you from the imprortant things in life, at least you know you have many joys to come back to!

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      • anna amundsen

        13/05/2016 at 15:58

        My dear joys.. Finally! I had some time and presence of mind to read a bit these previous ten days. Now, I must get myself to write something.. Poor blog..

        Like

         
        • Ste J

          14/05/2016 at 09:52

          I pop by your blog a few times a week just in case you have written anything, you will get there my friend. I am glad you have gotten some time to read finally.

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          • anna amundsen

            14/05/2016 at 17:20

            Few times in a week! Try few times in a month.. That’s how active I am.. 😦
            Thank you for stopping by in any case. I appreciate it, Ste.

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            • Ste J

              14/05/2016 at 21:24

              I always seem to miss when you do post and catch it a few days later typically but I get there in the end and I see you have a new post up which I will come and read tomorrow, Eurovision is on and so I can’t concentrate on anything else! You have a devoted follower in me despite this annual distraction.

              Like

               

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