23. A Bend in the River: V.S. Naipaul (Not so African)

Title: A Bend in the River
Author: V.S. Naipaul
Publishers: Picador
Genre: Novel (Post-Colonial)
Pages: 326
Year of First Publication: 1979 (this edition, 2002)
Country: United Kingdom

APOLOGIES: Until the present post the objective of this blog has been to promote African writers. African in this sense was defined as 'SOMEONE WHO WAS EITHER BORN ON THE CONTINENT OR WHO BECAME A CITIZEN OF AN AFRICAN COUNTRY' either by adoption or naturalisation. It is based on this premise that I did not review Obama's Dreams from my Father and Kafka's Trial, though I would have loved to. However, I am breaking this rule for just this post. I am doing so because this book has been highly rated and was shortlisted for the 1979 Booker Prize and on the list of many Top 100 novels, including my own Top 100 books to be read in five years. It is also about Africa. 

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (born 1938) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 and the Booker Prize in 1971. This makes him the second Nobel Laureate for Literature and the second Booker Prizer winner I am reading, following John Maxwell Coetzee.

A Bend in the River was set in the period immediately following the independence of a country (circa 1963), which Naipaul chose not to name, but which descriptions of its president or the Big-Man, as Naipaul called him, (especially the leopard-style caps, clothes and the staff he carries) together with academic discourse has named as Zaire or present-day DR Congo. The Big-Man with his long African name is no other than Mobutu Sese Sseko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga and the town located at the bend in the river has also been named as Kisangani.

The narrator, Salim, is a migrant from an Indian Ocean country referred to only as the Coast, who has come to the town at the bend in the river to establish and man a business concern. Later he was joined by Ali or Metty his family slave.

Salim's description of the inhabitants of the bend in the river was brutal and without understanding, criticising them at every chance and likening them to animals, though he never fraternise with these inhabitants to understand them. He never spoke their local patois even though Metty came to speak and fraternise freely with the locals.

According to Salim sex at the town at the bend in the river was as loose as anything one could think of. You could just walk to and knock upon a woman's door and without much talk have sex with her. However, early on, Salim's sex life revolved around prostitutes in brothels. He never saw a stable relationship with the local women possible or even sensible and tried keeping it secret whilst he bedded them. Later, Salim was to have a brutal and awkward affair with the wife (Yvette) of a History professor (Raymond) whose presence he came to enjoy. Salim's chauvinistic attitude was so bad that he had to beat and manhandle Yvette when he thought the relationship had to come to an end. There were times that he likened Yvette to the prostitutes after she has made such harmless comment as praising his sexuality. Salim considered his friend, Mahesh, as stunted by his relationship with Shoba, his girlfriend.

During the upheavals and the radicalization decree by the Big Man that saw most of the enterprises owned by foreigners taken over by the locals, Salim became an ordinary worker in his own shop and decided to deal in illegal activities including gold and ivory to generate some money and leave the town and country. Salim was later to be arrested for dealing in ivory but was set free by an African, Ferdinand, to whom he was to be a mentor.

Life at the bend in the river was pathetic and almost mournful. It had a sinusoidal appearance with a boom followed a depression and famine and upheavals. People became distracted and this distraction and abjection was well observed and captured by Ferdinand:
Nobody's going anywhere. We're all going to hell, and every man knows this in his bones. We're  being killed. Nothing has any meaning. That is why everyone is so frantic. Everyone wants to make his money and run away. But where? That is what is driving people mad.... (page 319)
What I didn't like about this novel is his bundling together of all the people and labelling them as Africans. Africans are a diverse group and it is this sort of novels that make people think that Africa is a country rather than a continent. One town in a given country cannot represent Africa. If Naipaul wanted not to name the country and the town, all he could have done was to state 'the people of the bend in the river...' or 'the people of the country' rather than using Africa as an umbrella description.

My worries and disappointment by this novel has nothing to do with his description of women or the bundling of the inhabitants under an African umbrella. It had more to do with the literary presentation. The monologue nature of the narrative is dull and, though it reads well, it lacks plot. It is more like a rant and reads like a diary entry and could have gone on and on and on without reaching a peak.

I would not want to recommend this book. If you want to read Naipaul, a celebrated author, read a different book as I am going to do. I would be reading, but not blogging, A House for Mr. Biswa.


  1. That's exactly the kind of novel I don't want to read. I wonder why Naipaul is such a celebrated author if he falls into such generalisations about African people in one of his most famous novels.
    I love the map you posted. It fits perfectly with what you stated in the post. An African from Cape Town is certainly very different from another from Marrakesh, as a man from Oslo is very different from a man from Beijing or New York.
    I hope you'll have a better time reading the next novel...

  2. I hope so Stefania. It is just a bore to read a novel that talks about one village and the people being referred to as Africans...that generalisation. I wonder what caused this novel to be shortlisted for the Booker award.

    I hope I would enjoy his other novels. As for awards I am realising that they don't mean much. There are other better novelists who have never been awarded as they should be.

  3. Yes, you're right. Virginia Woolf has never won the Nobel Prize, and there is no doubt that she is so much better than Herta Muller or Le Clézio.

  4. Yep! I would post a list of 100 books to be read in 3 or 5 years for you to add something to it.

  5. My view on Naipaul's generalisation isn't as harsh as yours. First off, if there's any generalisation, it would only be about countries south of the Sahara. Then Naipaul writes lots and lots about differing ethnic groups and how they feel uneasy if taken out of their home turf (one example of many, the main character's shop assistant's long frightening journing from coast to interior). Also it is not Naipaul himself speaking in this novel, but a literary fictional figure.

    I think complaints about over-generalisations are often heard regarding books and movies. It's normal, and still every reader knows that the world is so much more complex. Some of my neighbors are terrible; now if Naipaul wrote a book depicting my terrible neighbors as terrible: would i complain about wrong generalisation about people in my area? No, i see it as a case study.

  6. Thanks Hans for the commentary and analysis of the review. I get your point and I hope readers would read your reasoning too.

    Keep visiting and let's have a chat on any of my reviews... Enjoy the day


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