‘A Bend in The River’ is a 1979 historical novel written by Nobel Laureate Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, set in an unnamed town in Africa at a bend in the great river, after independence. The novel is narrated by Salim, an ethnically Indian Muslim man, a shopkeeper who believes ‘the world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.’, and he arrives in this part of Africa, a land of the exploited and a broken piece of nowhere, where political turmoil, and a hellish future is growing.
Salim, buys a business from Nazruddin, who sold him the shop cheap, giving a modicum of relief to the relentless insecurity that had lingered over Salim. Little does he know, what kind of life awaits him at the heart of Africa. Initially, the business is slow, but the town is growing, and as each day passes with the hope of tomorrow’s future, a certain balance starts to enter Salim’s life, as the shop starts to sell its goods and he meets Zabeth The Magician.
He befriends few people, with whom he socialises multiple times, Zabeth The Magician and her son Ferdinand, Mahesh and Shoba- the unique Indian couple with a blemished past behind them, Metty who returns from his old hometown to meet Salim and join him, his childhood friend Indar who returns a changed man from his university in London, Raymond and Yvette, Salim is constantly affected by all of them and a struggle for identity and survival ensues, and gives rise to inevitable chaos.
The novel starts off slowly, and Naipaul dives into the sea of the day to day life quotidian details-the trade and the sale, the roots of the commerce, the food, the lustfulness, the happiness and the sadness, the slavery, and the haunting depiction of nature – the poetry seamlessly flowing in the bleak landscapes of historical barren lands, The River flowing eternally through the coast warming and cooling the atmosphere, the red paved roads with a rising mountain of rubbish and garbage, distempered walls and blood scattered roads, all amounting to a geographical and historical narrative of the world seen through African eyes and the emotion felt by the African soul, darkened by the pain and terror of exploitation and repression.
The setting moves from one place to another, creating virtual and metaphysical contrasting images of different worlds existing in a country, the blood of rich and poor spilled and flowing in a country ruled by corrupt agencies and self destructive sociopaths, broken by the invaders and manipulators of history, the West dominating the East, The Van Der Weyden building, and the police stations with their aboriginal prisons, and a separate wild world of the Bushes simply referred to as ‘The Bush’ which sheltered the tribes from being slaughtered by the pseudo progressive officials and militia.
The novel is a narrative of reality, and sets into motion, a textual poetry of its own unique taste and genre, as Naipaul’s prose starts to enter the flesh and blood of the reader, constantly invigorating and addictive and it would be an understatement to say that Naipaul is a literary sorcerer, in the manner in which he writes each word and makes its important felt is something that is a near impossible feat to achieve.
After reading V.S. Naipaul’s two of the most acclaimed and revered masterpieces: ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’ and ‘A Bend in The River’, I can finally say that when I read ‘ A House for Mr. Biswas’ I was enamoured of that novel but at that time I also felt that if V.S. Naipaul is recognised as a literary star through this novel which is undoubtedly masterful, then why is Salman Rushdie being ignored for the Nobel Prize in Literature as being too popular (verbatim by Nobel Committee) ? but now after ‘ A Bend in The River’ I realise that this is what gave him the Nobel Prize in Literature, Naipaul’s prose is his towering achievement, believe me not a single word in this 325 page novel is uneventful or clumsy or even indulgent, and I was absorbed and rushed to finish this novel within 3 days.
2001 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy praised his work “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories. Naipaul is a modern philosopher carrying on the tradition that started originally with Lettres persanes and Candide. In a vigilant style, which has been deservedly admired, he transforms rage into precision and allows events to speak with their own inherent irony. Naipaul is Conrad’s heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings. His authority as a narrator is grounded in the memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished.”
It is undoubtedly well deserved, and I must say ‘A Bend in The River’ is a Conradian masterpiece which, if Conrad and Tolstoy would have been alive today, they would surely have regarded Naipaul as their successor epitomising the definition of a masterful and unbiased novelist.
‘A Bend in The River’ is truly Naipaul’s philosophical and literary magnum opus which parallels ‘Heart of Darkness’ in every step on a sentence by sentence level with a flawless and perfect prose. It stands out as a piece of art and cements itself as one of the greatest novels ever written.
A terrifying and obsessively gripping novel that changes the way we look at the world and the history that shrouds it.
“The world is what it is; men who are nothing, men who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
-V.S. Naipaul, ‘A Bend in The River’