A Bend in the River – Book Review

BendInTheRiverNobody’s going anywhere. We’re all going to hell, and every man knows this is in his bones. We’re being killed. Nothing has any meaning. That is why everyone is so frantic. Everyone wasn’t to make his money and run away. But where? That is what is driving people mad. They feel they’re losing the place they can run back to. – from A Bend in the River, page 272 –

Salim, an Indian man living on the East Coast of Africa, sets out to make a life at a small village at a bend in the river in the interior of Africa. He arrives there, following the old slave trails, shortly after the town has won its independence in 1963. The town is in shambles with a poor economy and hardly enough food to feed its people. Yet, Salim stays and builds a business. He is joined by a family servant named Metty and befriends a couple named Shoba and Mahesh. He also attempts to mentor a bush woman’s young son, Ferdinand. As the years roll by, the new President of this nation dumps money into building a University and “domain” where the rich white people live. In the background are always the soldiers and rumblings of war. Salim has a briefly passionate yet violent affair with a white married woman, and at one point is arrested for dealing in black market ivory.

V.S. Naipaul’s book A Bend in the River is perhaps one of the more depressing books I’ve read. Although the town is never named, it is most likely set in Zaire (currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo) during the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time there was a great deal of social and political upheaval and violence. Naipaul’s protagonist, Salim, narrates the novel and spends much of his time philosophizing about the role of women in relationships, the political and military climate of the region, his own lack of direction, and the difference between modernized people and the bush people. The problem with this internalized dialogue was that I never felt connected to any of the characters. It was as though Salim was merely telling us his tale (with very little plot).

The themes of A Bend in the River include the view of the outsider (foreigner) vs. the insider, and  African rage in response to colonialism. When a mild-mannered priest who is teaching in the town (and has created a museum of bush and tribal mementos) is brutally murdered and decapitated, the townspeople barely cease their every day routines in order to pull his mangled body from the river. Naipaul uses the river and its floating heaps of water hyacinths as symbols of the relentless changes moving through Africa.

Always sailing up from the south, from beyond the bend in the river, were clumps of water hyacinths, dark floating islands on the dark river, bobbing over the rapids. It was as if rain and river were tearing away bush from the heart of the continent and floating it down to the ocean, incalculable miles away.  But the water hyacinth was the fruit of the river alone. The tall lilac-coloured flower had appeared only a few years before, and in the local language there was no word for it. The people still called it “the new thing” or “the new thing in the river,” and to them it was another enemy. – from A Bend in the River, page 46 –

This was my first V. S. Naipaul novel – and I had hoped to love it. Instead I found myself growing bored with Salim’s theorizing. The book crawls at a snail’s pace. It is perhaps the longest short novel I have ever read. I also did not appreciate the negative characterization of all the women in the book. Salim (and nearly all the men in the book) frequent the brothels, and Salim at one point theorizes: But if women weren’t stupid, the world wouldn’t go round (from page 186). He later brutally attacks and beats his mistress whose response is to climb into bed and open her legs to him. The one seemingly normal relationship between Mahesh and Shoba is harshly criticized by Salim.

Mahesh was my friend. But I thought of him as a man who had been stunted by his relationship with Shoba. That had been achievement enough for him. Shoba admired him and needed him, and he was therefore content with himself, content with the person she admired. His only wish seemed to be to take care of this person. He dressed for her, preserved his looks for her. I used to think that when Mahesh considered himself physically he didn’t compare himself with other men, or judge himself according to some masculine ideal, but saw only the body that please Shoba. He saw himself as his woman saw him; and that was why, though he was my friend, I thought that his devotion to Shoba had made him half a man, and ignoble. – from A Bend in the River, page 197 –

So, I guess, according to Naipaul’s protagonist … a man cannot be a man and be devoted to the woman he loves. Huh? Maybe I should not have been surprised to read this from Wikipedia:

Naipaul credits an extramarital affair for giving A Bend in the River and his later books greater fluidity, saying these “in a way to some extent depend on her (i.e., his mistress). They stopped being dry.”

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I am not going to recommend A Bend in the River. Scholars have credited this book with being one of the books to read about Africa. I would argue that a novel which has little plot, little story, reads like a tedious monologue from a textbook, and insults women is not one too many readers want to waste their time on. My recommendation for an amazing novel set in the Congo would be The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (read my review).

Naipaul won the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 and was short listed for the Booker Prize for A Bend in the River in 1979, but he’s not getting any awards from me!


Read other reviews on this book:

Plays With Needles

11 Reviews on Library Thing

Have you read this book? Please leave me a link to your review in the comments!

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  1. Oh no! I had hoped that this book would be good – I love books set in India. I think I need to get this one out of the way soon – I hate having terrible Bookers looking at me – I need to ensure I read them and have only the good ones left! I know that is a weird thing to do, but it helps me get through the lists!

    • Laura on October 4, 2009 at 02:07

    Wendy, it won’t surprise you to know that I don’t care for Naipaul either! I read In a Free State last year (because it won the Booker). I despised it and, like you with this book, only gave it one star. I had high hopes for it too, simply because of the author’s reputation. Unfortunately its sole redeeming quality was that it was a short book !

  2. Wow, what a powerful review! And how awful about his treatment of women! Disgusting quote from Wikipedia. Crossing him off my list!

    • Kathy on October 4, 2009 at 05:28

    When I started reading your synopsis, I thought this sounded like a powerful book, but as I read your reaction to it, I realize it wasn’t executed well. It sounds like one to skip.

    • JoAnn on October 4, 2009 at 07:29

    Oh dear…I have an edition that contains both A Bend in the River and A House for Mr. Biswas. Guess I’ll attempt the second one first 😉

    • Wendy on October 4, 2009 at 08:15

    Jackie: This is actually set mostly in the Congo (although the protagonist is an Indian). Some people have loved this book. I think my biggest problem with it was Naipaul’s writing…which I found dry and un-engaging. I also hated the portrayal of women and the attitudes toward them.

    Laura: I remember that review! At the time I thought “Oh no” because I had a couple of Naipaul’s books already in my TBR stack. I only got through this one because I am leading a discussion on it for a book group. The more I learn about Naipaul himself, the more it impacts my reaction to his books. Apparently in his biography, he confesses to being a wife-beater…which given what happens to Salim’s lover makes me wonder if we are reading fiction or a review of Naipaul’s life. Ugh.

    Jill: *nods* And note my comment to Laura above…apparently his bad behavior is not just limited to adultery. I could MAYBE overlook the author’s behavior in real life if his prose engaged me …. NOT.

    Kathy: Others will probably disagree with me (I am in a book group discussing this book and I am a little surprised at the glowing reviews from others)…so you might want to see for yourself. But, I will avoid this author now.

    JoAnn: Well, maybe you will like them! But it wasn’t for me 🙂

  3. I know sometimes when I read a book with an underlying political or social issue, I always feel like I should like the book and I am so disappointed when I don’t, because at the heart of the book is the writing and if it isn’t there, it isn’t there.

    I loved The Poisonwood Bible! It got a bit long at times, but I loved it.

    • Wendy on October 7, 2009 at 06:47

    Tracie Yule: I feel the same way! When a book has won awards, or is talking about something which seems important…I feel pressure to like it. Every now and then, though (as with this book), I just really do not like a book – whether it be style, voice, or just how the story is presented, or the characters…even though it makes me cringe a little, I have to be honest! Glad to hear you also loved The Poisonwood Bible…that was a book that sat on my TBR stack for more than 2 years before I read it *laughs*

    • Hedgie on October 7, 2009 at 20:48

    Naipul is at best a very controversial writer; he is of Indian parentage but has written scathingly of Indian society; he was born and raised in the Caribbean but has been accused of drastically misrepresenting and demeaning Caribbean society in his work. He has been sharply criticized for many of his attitudes and prejudices, including those towards women. That said, “A House for Mr. Biswas” is a magnificent if painful novel, probably his best. I do find it interesting that, given his Indian and Caribbean heritage, many of his novels have been set in Africa, a place where for some reason he seems to feel more at home than in the countries of his actual heritage.

    • Wendy on October 11, 2009 at 07:21

    Hedgie: Thanks for the info on Naipaul. Usually I don’t really care much about an author’s personal life when I’m reading their fiction – but Naipaul seems to insert a lot of himself into his novels (at least this one!). I’ve heard than A House for Mr. Biswas is probably his best. At some point I’ll check it out.

    • Eva on February 28, 2010 at 15:01

    I’m so glad you gave me the link to your review Wendy! I was sooooo bored during the book, that I forgot to even mention in the review how angry I was at how he portrayed women. How could I forget that?! Hmph. Maybe I won’t give Naipul a second chance.

    • Wendy on March 1, 2010 at 15:09

    Eva: Glad you stopped over! I found myself getting angrier and angrier with Naipaul re: his stance on women…there was so much I disliked about the book *laughs*

    • darlene on April 22, 2010 at 19:34

    I am half way through the novel….not too bad…just have to ask..why caribousmom..where did you get the name, I am from a town called caribou and caught my attention

    • Wendy on April 28, 2010 at 07:09

    Darlene: Caribou was my search and rescue dog – you can read more about her on this page; also my “about” page explains why I named my blog as I did!

    • henrik on July 22, 2010 at 03:32

    Naipaul’s early books differ somewhat from A Bend in the River and they all play in provincial Trinidad and have a lot of laconic, subdued comedy and bizarre pidgin English. This includes masterpiece A House for Mr Biswas.

    Even in A House for Mr Biswas, women are treated badly (as in the other early Trinidad novels, Miguel Street, Elvira and Mystic Masseur). I personally never felt that Naipaul endorses this kind of treatment, but rather depicts what he saw happening. But i’m surely biased. (Treatment in the early novels is never as drastic as in Bend in the River).

    I wouldn’t say at all that Naipaul’s majority of books mainly deals with Africa (even though a new one about Uganda seems due in October 2010). I wouldn’t judge a book i haven’t read.

    • Wendy on July 26, 2010 at 06:43

    Henrik: Thanks for stopping by and weighing in on this book and also Naipaul’s other work. I don’t know if Naipaul endorses bad treatment of women, but some of what I’ve learned about him makes me think he is not all that woman-friendly 🙂 I agree about not judging a book I haven’t read…although I am not eager to read more from Naipaul. But, who knows…maybe I’ll give him another try one of these days.

    • Cheryl on March 7, 2011 at 08:12

    Hi, I just came across this review. I have not read this book but I have read other Naipaul books since I am from the same country. The book I like best is the Enigma of Arrival. I support those who are scathing about Naipaul’s treatment of women both in print and in his personal life, even though he is fairly open about his faults.

    • Wendy on March 7, 2011 at 09:03

    Cheryl: Thanks for stopping by! I don’t know when (or if) I’ll read another Naipaul book, but if I do, I’ll try Enigma of Arrival on your recommendation 🙂 I actually hate that I know so much about Naipaul’s personal life because I do think it impacts my opinion of his work – I suppose if he did not bring his negative attitude toward women into his novels, I could forgive his personal life and enjoy his books more.

    • TimmyKoko on April 16, 2011 at 13:11

    Hello, Just finished this book, and funny enough, I had never heard of the book or author before!? In all actuality I started reading thinking I grabbed a book by Nabakov out of my list of books.

    I take a few issues with this review, other than the fact that it is very well written. 🙂

    First things first, in no way would I ever condone the mistreatment of anyone, (esp. Woman) ,but you seem to completely miss the point of this book by focusing so sharply on the treatment/relationship of the women. To be honest, I think the relationships very well illustrate the overall theme or message of the book, that being, things are really, really screwed up. The sad reality is I don’t think it is an inaccurate depiction of the way women were viewed or were treated in that time period or location and I doubt it has improved much since then. The treatment of women in the book simply parallels the whole state of affairs whether that is politically or economically.

    I think this book is an amazing piece of literature in that is a very honest, and to like this book does not condone the mistreatment of women.

    So in my opinion, to say this is a sad, dark book and that it is a, one-star-out-of-five, and not worth the read, is to bury your head in the sand and not acknowledge that these things are happening whether we like them or not. I applaud the author for his attempts to take on so many delicate subjects.

    I don’t think it’s a question of whether or not this is a good book. (It’s amazing.)
    The question is whether or not we are making progress in the world, have we improved ourselves on a world whole in the thirty years since this book was written? Or do we just have nicer houses and cars?

    • henrik on April 17, 2011 at 22:35

    In his thick, readable Naipaul biography, Patrick French shows with terrified awe what a disgusting human being Naipaul is, especially towards women including his wife (Naipaul cooperated on the biography and never contradicted).

    This doesn’t take an inch away from Naipaul’s literary merits.

    I’m rather with Timmy here.

    • jon on May 6, 2011 at 08:04

    I agree with Timmy (above) about how to read the book, whether you approve of what happens in it. Bend….displays great violence, racialism, racism, and the difficulty of putting 6,000 to 10,000 political entities together into two dozen or so new nation states (fifty years ago). Salim is both a sensitive observer and a callous man out of place and angry with himself. This is a fine book about a set of difficult subjects – the predicament of much of postwar sub-saharan Africa. poison bible is excellent and more ‘enjoyable’ but a bit shallow at getting us inside the difficulties of Africa since in Kingsolver’s play with point of view, she stays western and female exclusively.
    read about the history of Africa, and this book makes much more sense. one place to learn is this forty four minute film produced by al jazeera and the bbc:

    • Rastrent on May 19, 2011 at 14:00

    I find your review of the book extremely biased. You are basing your argument to not read the novel off of the thematic elements of the book. Perhaps you should consider the fact that women were simply treated in such a way that may seem unexemplery in colonial Africa, however there are also points in which women are praised, such as the description of the Big Man’s love for his mother and his assignment of government positions to women. Obviously Naipaul is a great writer since he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and while this novel may be a slow read, it is remarkably dense with a multitude of literary devices and themes. The only conclusion I can make is that you are too accustomed to reading chick lit and People magazines to understand any novel as deep as A Bend in the River

    • Wendy on May 19, 2011 at 17:22

    All of you are clearly within your rights to express your opinions about this book – but when you then go on to attack me personally, suggesting I am somehow too stupid to “get it,” then you go a bit far. I almost did not approve some of these most recent comments BECAUSE you are attacking me personally. It is fine to have a discussion about the merits of a book…and we can certainly disagree…but don’t think for a minute that I am somehow unable to appreciate good literature.

    Rastrent: If you even took a second to look at the books I read (which you can find under my reviews tag) you would see that my reading is not just genre fiction. Don’t insult me. I read some of the greatest literature out there – including many literary prize winning novels. Just because I happened to not like THIS book or THIS writer does not take away from my opinions in general about literature. Next time, if you choose to come here, be respectful…

    • Bob Barnshaw on October 20, 2012 at 13:22

    Just finished the book. Found Salim to be not the most moral or ethical character. Rather, he portrays the scene, the conflict of the reality presented by Naipaul. IMO, he is equally hard on women and men. In additional to his mistreatment of Yvette and poor view of Shoba, he similarly assumes Metty and portrays Memesh as ignorant and shallow. There are few exampelary characters in this story. Zabeth may come closest to such.

    Naipaul’s story is a glimpse into the day to day life of post-colonial Africa. He portrays how ignorance, selfishness, prejudice, and other human weaknesses limit freedom or possibilities. He is optimistic, however, as he constantly refers, directly and metaphorically, to the inevitability of change.

    This is a great read no matter your preference, for the writing, the story, and the many ways Naipaul grabs you and forces you to think!

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