Set 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 The beliefs of the population in themselves, their history, religions and collective citizenship have been replaced by vulnerability and a loss of the perceived identity they have had for years.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.