Book Review of “A Bend In the River”
Anonymous Oct 14, 2007
This simple coming of age story blends the tradition of classics like “Catcher in the Rye” and “A Separate Peace” with the rich history of and drama of war torn Africa.
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The novel starts in the colonized regions and days of Africa where our novelist is aggressively pursuing his way socially and financially while tribal wars terrorize and attempt to liberate Africa in every
aspect. Africa is being broken and built again in a similar fashion to the antagonist. We watch Africa
lose its property value as the violence of war envelopes the coastal region where the book is set.
In memoir fashion, Naipaul makes “Salim” our first person narrator. Salim, though born in Africa feels
the tension as an outsider inside a divided caste system in part due to his Arabic background which
composes a large, distinctive part of Africa. Salim is indifferent to the struggles of slavery. He keeps
slaves yet gives them the choice to be free yet they stay with him. He takes no part in any slavery
uprising. It is not his hate for Africans that he keeps “slaves” but his love for what he feels are his
people and gives them chances to progress and be housed in a society where the insubordinate are dying, struggling, and squatting. Though he chooses no role politically, he finds himself caught at times in the crossfire of the seemingly never ending coup. Finally slavery is abolished and a black man, part military, part tribal becomes President. Property value goes up and Salim finds himself gaining the
successes he dreamed of. His tiny store quadruples in price. Even his shanty booms financially.
During this history lesson of the colonization of Africa and the era immediately following we get a
descriptive look at a world so far from our own. A third world country we can hardly fashion. A bribery based system with the onslaught of systematic disease without control.
We follow Salim from the 30’s to the 70’s where he desperately looks for his place in the world. Forgetting the magic of his ancestors and the customs and traditions of tribal Africa. Salim is a capitalist dream. He needs America and Africa has no space for him. He travels searching for the “right” place to give him the serenity and peace he strives for, but comes up empty handed. His truth is never in Africa, Europe, or America but somewhere deep inside himself. Does he ever find this? Do WE ever find this? Or do we switch from job to job, car to car, spouse to spouse in an escape to finally forget who we really are. What our truth really is?
Part enriching novel and part African memoir it does lag at points though for the naive (myself included). It was a great introduction into the lives of Africans that I had never been introduced to before. Salim the “hero” can be fairly boring but it’s Africa that draws the readers in. The lovely contagious disturbing words of Africa. The beautiful, dying lives of Africans. The melancholy outside the squatter settlements (so eerily familiar). The pub nights. The escape. Salim finds himself stuck with a motley cast of character ranging from servants to presidential men and finds a solace in his
introversion. This introversion, this blank apathy is the glue that makes Salim so goddamn interesting. His “picking up and leaving”. His doing what we are afraid to do.
Pulitzer Prize winning Naipaul strikes gold in a slow sad way with “A Bend In the river”. But when your
people, your classmates, are bloodied and beheaded, your knees begin to hurt after crouching for so long, lost in your salty tears. The book finally questions does a human, a community, a nation-state have the power of reinvention? Can we REALLY change? Will we always be a commodity.
This extraordinary book is for those who despise classic history textbooks. Naipaul writes funny and
sad. Naipual writes with emotion. Naipaul writes the truth in a way that stings the heart yet consoles
it with the lives of the less unfortunate. He reminds us who we are? With a “Tortilla Flat” like cast of
characters. We watch this community grow, change and eventually reinvent themselves paralleled with
Salim. In terse, it is man’s journey through a country that is going through it’s own changes. The
symbolism is unique and recommended to anyone interested in the history of Africa and an outsider
trying desperately to find his way. Haven’t we all been there before?
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