A Bend in the River, by V. S. Naipaul.
Nobody'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 pleased 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!
One star out of five.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".