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on 25 July 2017
In a fictional African country, a young Indian business man from the coast starts a small business trading with Africans from up country. The story follows his fortunes as a dictatorship takes over and exercises its powers in increasingly extreme ways. Some great characters and VS Naipaul's usual sharp observations of human behaviour under stress. He never flinches at acknowledging the subtle differences in European and Asian prejudices about Africans and how capitalism and racism function in tandem.
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on 17 May 2017
Very good read
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on 27 July 2008
I must say that I regret that it took me a long time to discover the significance of A Bend in the River. Its significance was brought to my attention by the recent publicity surrounding a biography of V S Naipaul. As I began reading the novel, it immediately stuck a cord with me. Naipaul's opening sentence must be one of the most stunning first sentences of the literary novel. Its assertion creates a sense that one has embarked upon the reading of a great philosophical treatise. I was immediately engaged.

Our first person narrator and main character, Salim, takes over a shop somewhere in central Africa in a state of post rebellion. He is restless and trying to escape his former life on the east coast of Africa. Salim narrates his struggle for personal change against a backdrop of an array of characters who undertake their own personal journey of survival and change in the context of an emerging state that vacillates between the promise of success, and failure.

A Bend in the River is a timeless novel. Some twenty nine years after first publication if you take this passage as an example: "I had heard dreadful stories of that time, of casual killings over many months by soldiers and rebels and mercenaries, of people trusted up in disgusting ways and being made to sing certain songs while they were beaten to death in the streets", you will soon realise that it is very relevant to certain parts of Africa today. One must pay tribute to Naipaul's profound percepton and unfortunate prophecy.

This is a well observed and down right honest story. For this reason I fear that some readers may well shirk from its truths. In trying to get at the truth, Naipaul has a keen eye for the social conditions and an acute awareness of the mores of the surroundings in which his characters find themselves. The novel is rendered with frankness and heart felt honesty. However, Naipaul knows that we don't simply turn stones and find the truth. In a spirit of disillusionment a minor character tells us: "Do you think we will ever get to know the truth about what has happended in Africa in the last one hundred or even fifty years? All the wars, all the rebellions, all the leaders, all the defeats?

But the novel is much more than a story about the state of Africa or at least that part of Africa that it purports to cover. It is also a story about an ex-colonized people struggling to find a place in what they might perceive as the 'modern' world. Its like being cast off to drift by colonial masters, the 'ex-colonized' suddenly floats towards the shores of the mother countries but then find themselves lost. But what are these 'ex-colonized' people suppose to do? Should they take up the advice of one of Naipaul's characters, Indar, and acknowledge that: "the past can only cause pain" and then trample on it?

It is this theme, the psychological plight of the colonized and ex-conlonized that makes the novel a facinating read. It manifests itself dramatically in the character Salim. To some extent Salim is insecure and angry because he has managed to step outside the colonial frame of consciousness. He becomes adrift; he has no anchor. I quote at length to illustrate the point, and incidently this is symbolic of many a people brought up in the colonial world. This is how Salim describes his existential plight: "I too, breaking out of old ways, had discovered solitude and melancholy which is at the basis of religion. Religion turns the melancholy into uplifting fear and hope. But I had rejected the ways and comforts of religion. I couldn't turn to them again, just like that. That melancholy about the world remained something I had to put up with on my own. At some times it was sharp; at some times it wasn't there."

There is an array of wonderfully drawn characters. I was particularly taken by the couple Mahesh and Shoba. What we have in Mahesh is a bright, ambitious and optimistic man who is nonetheless thawted by his social conditions. In another place and time Mahesh represents the possibilities that could have been realised. What the main characters have in common, which makes them intriguing, is that they are running away from other lives and become caught up, and to some extent trapped, in the vast ramifications of the new post colonial Africa. On the whole these characters are not Africans and so in an ironic twist Naipaul turns the predator, who would exploit Africa for its potential, into hopeless prey simply adrift on a sea of events beyond their control. These characters are at once pityful and pathetic.

The prose is direct and straight forward yet dense with issues that the reader has to tease out. There is no rethorical flourishes. Mataphor and simile are kept to a minimum and where they are used they are not that vivid and memorable. I sense that this approach by Naipaul was deliberate. It's as if he did not want anything to get in the way of his powerful themes and ideas.

Ultimate, this is a novel of ideas. There us religion, politics, history and the eking out of an African intellectual culture. It depicts a people trying to find their feet in a post colonial world but inevitably stumbling. But the book is much more than a depiction of conditions in Africa. Just as important for me, and for others who care about such issues, it outlines the psychological and intellectual plight of people living in former colonies, and who have emmigrated to live in the so called mother countries. This is an honest book that touched me deeply. Twenty nine years on from publication it is still relevant and worth a read.
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What a great novel this is! It tells the story of Salim who left his family home on the coast to start a business in central Africa at a town on the bend in the great Congo River. The inhabitants of the town, natives and expatriates, are described with empathy and an eye for detail.
Naipaul also narrates the history of the town as it is connected to the ups and downs of history, with great detail. His writing style is compelling and elegant, while the plot and characterization are superb. In many ways, the book illumines the post-independence history of those Africans that are of Indian descent.
Most of them were traders and many of them went into a second diaspora after the tumult and political upheavals in Africa of the 1960s and 70s. I was particularly impressed by Salim's first experience of the voice of Joan Baez, when a record of hers was played at a party in the academic suburb next to the old town.
Naipaul's extraordinary talent comes through in every flowing sentence and in every well-chosen word. I'm not a great lover of fiction, but this book has enriched my mind. I highly recommend it to readers of serious fiction and to historians alike. I also recommend the travel book North Of South by Shiva Naipaul, the record of a journey through Africa that ties in very well with A Bend In The River.
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on 21 September 1999
This is one of the most difficult books I have ever read, mainly due to the author's subdued writing style and my personal inability (as a white Briton) to relate to much of the content.
The plot is minimal, but the theme of a country (Africa), lost because of its inability to create any kind of permanent memorial to itself, permeates the novel.
This theme is particularly poignant during the chapters when the narrator lives for a time in London. The concrete and the bricks, the enduring 'sameness', the sense of century on century, is utterly alien to all that Africa appears to mean.
I found this a haunting book, filled with emotions which returned again and again after the book was read and put away.
It was very challenging, but highly rewarding.
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on 29 August 2011
I have had this book sitting on my bookshelf for many years and I finally got around to reading it. I knew of its iconic status and reputation. I also knew a little bit about the author - a man who seemed detached and a little vain - as if being labelled a great author had some special spiritual significance for him.

The pace and rhythm of the book was like a gentle wave lapping onto some deserted island shore - unrelenting and after a while a little monotonous. The prose was clear and uncluttered. It was certainly easy to read. But for most of the time I was looking forward to finishing the book and nothing particularly captivated my attention and spurred me on with any relish.

The trouble with books that come with a reputation of greatness is that you feel compelled to believe the hype and to recognise the greatness in every sentence and paragraph. For me - a good reading experience does not exist in lingering over the choice of certain words to catch the incredible insight of that choice. That is purist nonsense. Overall I found the reading experience a little tedious and low-key. Undoubtedly it gives an account of the experience of migrants to Africa, of the lack of cohesion in society, and the ever present dangers of bush and village life - and this was insightful - but Salim (our protagonist) was a little dull and detached - which is how I imagine the author to be.

We have philosophical musings about the nature of society and civilisations (especially from Indar - a friend of Salim) - and the concept of individualism is explored in some depth. All very worthy, and I am sure, important.

But - these musings can be better accessed in polemical debates or articles from newspapers.

If greatness lies in the choice of subject matter then for those who regard the African and migrant experience to be important then this is a great book. But it is not a great read - it lacks a strong story line and the characters are remote and faintly drawn.

What is the author trying to convey? I am not sure. But he comes up with no answers to his questions. In my opinion - this is not a Great book as it is lacking in warmth and any real and sympathetic understanding of human kind: too remote and spartan.
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on 28 May 2014
I always find it difficult to talk about the books I really like. Especially so if it is a Naipaul book. I read <i>The Bend </i> again this year and found it much more ensorcelling than first time around . I guess what is so appealing about the book is its sense of diligence, a discipline which attempts to faithfully reflect the emerging world in Africa, as it is. No more no less. Perhaps, this is why, even after half a century and million more theses written on Africa, it still reflects the essence of Africa as none of them do.

I suppose most paperback readers find it inane or even boring. But, bear in mind it's not a transit read. It's not a fiction of plot or story. It is a narrative of reality. And like all realities that are known to man, has no beginning or ending. It is a snapshot of a typical third world problem ie a recently independent state or culture desparately trying to hold onto something as its own in the wake of emerging post-modernism. But it never has or had anything of its own, anything that would give it an identity in the contemporary world apart from the history of having been a colony. Therefore it tries to manufacture a past – leaders, tribes, dances, cameraderie. Oh! the vanities, the denials, the insecurities, amidst all that is forming and unforming, changing choices, conflicting values. But it is what it is.

Then there is the beauty of Naipaul prose. God! How it flows. Delicate, sublime, perfect yet letting the reader to make his own mind without patronizing or simplifying the sentiment. What I found most incredible in the book is the style used to pastiche the complex reality, so unhurriedly, so gracefully; as the book moves forward, it feels like a wave slowly falling and receding on a shore – adding something to the before, yet taking away something after; letting all the voices to speak on their own terms, to express their own realities to ultimately add up a grand reality that none of them can access in toto.

Here is a wonderful instance – Indar is so ashamed of his third world identity that he desparately wants to trample his own past… <i>‘It isn’t easy to turn your back on the past. It isn’t something you can decide to do just like that. It is something you arm yourself for, or grief will ambush and destroy you. </i>

And Raymond with his first world citizenship, so much yearns for the True Africa that his own past has no bearing on his personal life. This leads to his wife's discontent and her confusion. Here's Raymond musing on Africa..<i> I was sitting in my room and thinking with sadness about all the things that have gone unrecorded. Do you think we can ever get to know the truth about what has happened in Africa in the last hundred or even fifty years? All the wars, all the rebellions, all the leaders, all the defeats?</i>

It doesn’t occur to you when you are reading it but as you move along, as the impressions of their characters are better formed , suddenly, somewhere in the next chapter perhaps, it occurs to you , that these two completely different men from completely different worlds are so unknowingly seeking each other’s past. They are only allowed to seek, ...Indar seducing Yvette or Raymond wanting to be Mommsen of Africa .., but never find. But they cant give up.

Hence the world is what it is, always in movement.
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on 29 September 2015
Cool, calm and collected. Interesting and easy to read. Could maybe have done with a little more of that setting Naipaul does so well - constant mention of jungle and so on but not enough detail. Keep it accessible I suppose. Also, the protagonist becomes violent near the end of the novel (not giving too much away) and in my opinion this was a turn-off. Not because I'm opposed to violence - right time, right place - but because it didn't seem true to this character who is so calm throughout and it didn't seem warranted. I guess it's metaphorical but it wasn't explained in any way and that was disappointing.

Overall though I've given it 4 stars because it made me think and, better than that, it made me look at Africa in a different way.
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on 29 January 2012

I came to this book by way of recent reading about the Congo. This book is mainly set there, though the country is never named, either as Congo or Zaire. But 'The Big Man', who exerts a distant and baleful influence on events from 'the Capital', is clearly Mobutu. Even his infamous leopard skin hat and fetish stick are described in some detail. But he is never named.

There are many fine qualities to this book. For this white, western European reader, the perceptions and attitudes of the protagonist, an Arab African, are fascinating and refreshing or slightly disconcerting, depending on the context. The author is West Indian by birth but he came to England to study and that has been a lasting influence on his writing. The sensibility of the colonized is a key theme of this book. It is hard to imagine it being so powerfully delineated by someone who has no lived experience of it.

The language is spare and undemonstrative. This becomes hypnotic for the reader and creates an affinity for the languor and aimlessness of some of the characters. It also lends understatement and enigma to the dramatic events that unfold later in the book.

The book also has much to say about the nature of Africa and Africans but seen from the perspective of the outsider - 'the man apart'. It is quizzical, implying of some inner space impenetrable to those not born there.

There are some recurrent, metaphorical, motifs - the invasive water lilies that arrived with the Europeans but which now damage local food production and the way they float down the river, on and on, endlessly; the optimism of the protagonist's mentor, which survives many vicissitudes, finally coming to rest in London's Gloucester Road; and the lure and repulsiveness of Europe for those over whom its influence is unchosen but irresistible.

I confess I did not enjoy the only other book by this author I have read, 'A House for Mr Biswas'. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it. 'A Bend in the River' is a good book, dealing with serious issues. It is a bit of a slow burn and the denouement is slightly hurried. But for anyone with an interest in how cultures understand and misunderstand each other, it is required reading.
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on 13 August 2002
So, here goes: my first Naipaul book. While reading it I really felt like being in Africa. And that's what always draws me back to Naipaul: he can so astonishingly well describe a place he once visited that it gets reconstructed to the tiniest detail in the reader's mind. And not only that: Naipaul can create characters as well as he can re-create places; Salim, Metty, Yvette - or even minor characters like Father Huismans and Raymond - are all so alive that you can't do otherwise than caring for them and wanting to know what they are destined to do.
Now, having read several more books by Naipaul since this first encounter, I must admit, though, that 'A Bend In The River' is the most monotonous of them and without the usual quantity of humour. On the other hand, I struggled hard not to give it ****, which says something about the quality of Naipaul's writing. In fact, this very book can get more appreciation after you try some of Naipaul's autobiographical books and start notice parallels between his life and his fiction (some parts of 'A Bend...' are also shown in 'Finding The Centre' - with Naipaul in Salim's role).
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