©1979 V.S. Naipaul; (P)2004 Blackstone Audiobooks
"A brilliant novel." (The New York Times)
"Confirms Naipaul's position as one of the best writers now at work." (Newsweek)
First of all, I love the beautiful simplicity of this story of change and spiraling evolution in a crossroads African village on a Bend in the River (Congo?).
Here is a modern novel, way above the class of the recent wave of complex and cliche ridden historical fictions. Here is a 'tip of the iceberg' novel, where so many layers of meaning and emotions arise out of an almost childlike diary-like narrative and run very deep. I was thinking about this book for a week after I read it and, could not, did not want to start another book until this one had settled a little in my psyche - A lot like listening to a great piece of music or having a spectacular meal and then not want to here or eat anything special for a while.
I found the experience of reading/listening to be nothing less than transendental, on the order of a Kawabata or Steinbeck. This is the counterpart to the difficult modern fiction of Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, and even Rushdie. Here, less is more and absolutely no struggling is required on the part of the reader, yet the author seems to effortlessly take you to on a journey that is compared to Hearts of Darkness, but there is nothing murky here. The waters are clear and devastating.
This story is presumed to be set in early post-colonial Congo (formerly Zaire, formerly the Belgian Congo.) Salim, through whose eyes we experience the story, is a young ethnic Indian from Eastern Africa, where he has few opportunities. He is given an opportunity to take over a small business in a town "at the bend in the river" in Central Africa, where he goes to live. There, he makes a living and forms friendships and liasons with others from the community and with outsiders, like himself, who have settled there. He earns respect as one who can be depended on. He takes in not only a younger member of his old boyhood household in the east, but also the teenage son of a trader. Through the eyes of Salim, we feel an optimism for this developing country and experience the sense of belonging and drive to survive of everyone living there: from the citizens of the region to the European ex-patriates. As the story shows the country beginning to dissolve into chaos and lawlessness, we have the feeling that we are witnessing close-up the human story behind the news reports we sometimes read about strife-torn countries. This is a well-told story, with an interesting plot, a varied cast of characters, and the fascinating backdrop of modern history in Africa. The narration of Simon Vance is superb.
Narrative makes the world go round.
It would take volumes of nonfiction to communicate what Naipaul says in this novel about Africa's struggle to shake off colonialism and neocolonialism with their aftershocks and displacements. Although written in 1977-78, the novel also anticpates the growth of economic globalization and its displacements. There is also a sad but comic portrait of the well-meaning Western intellectual class.
The novel helps the reader to understand how events like the Rwandan Genocide could happen and see its roots in the "White Hyacinth" (one of the central symbols) that crept down river from the west. Since the narrator (wise and experienced as he is) can speak only from his limited persepctive, symbol and metaphor supply the nuances. The novel also reminds us that "Africa" is a diverse continent, not one homogenous place. The novel surpasses its setting as a reflection on the nature of human power and domination, as well as resilience.
While it isn't an action novel, as someone else pointed out, the second half IS a gripping listen and accessible. Don't expect a "pat" ending, though.
This is the first Naipaul novel I've read/listened to, but I can see why his Nobel Prize citation praised him for relating the hidden, forgotten histories in literary form.
The readers english accent was perfect and at times difficult. This book required concentration to discern the subleties of both language and culture that are so different from contemporary USA. While it hints of Out of Africa it tells the story of a sensible man in a complex world in a time when the rules of traditional culture no longer applied.
I knew nothing of this book until seeing it on a list of the best novels of the 20th century. Now, I must agree that A Bend in the River is a fabulous novel.
Though no specifics are named, A Bend in the River takes place almost certainly in Zaire, where the President (“the Big Man”) has put down the rebellion and restored order to the country. Business flourishes, and many rejoice in the promise of the future. Eventually, however, things take a turn for the worse. The political climate becomes more repressive, government corruption and poverty abound, and the place becomes a real mess.
The reader experiences this through the eyes of Salim, an Arab-African (more African than Arab) storeowner in the local city. Salim is a fascinating narrator – his observations can be brilliant and insightful, yet his detachment from the real world is quite striking. Salim’s ability to conceal his emotions from both the reader and himself is also of particular interest.
Readers should not expect an “action” novel – A Bend in the River falls much more along the style of E.M. Forster or Joseph Conrad – but Naipaul’s prose is superb. Feast your eyes on the opening sentence: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
Simon Vance's narrative voice is also great.
I now understand why this book is so highly regarded. I have never read a better personal account of the rise and fall of a dictatorial regime, fiction or otherwise. Naipaul’s work makes fantastic modern fiction.
I am a lover of history and the fantastic tales of human achievement (or folly). Sometimes, a grand author captures my imagination.
What an amazing listen this book was. Totally engrossing! Salim’s life starts as an adventure, an escape from the mundane, and yet becomes colorful, complex and hectic. The writing is the true champion here and the surroundings, the people, politics and Africa, the supporting pillar. You really aren’t quite sure how it will all end but as the narrator is telling us of his past, we can only deduce that no calamity occurs. This was my first Naipaul and I hope to engross myself in more of his tales. Ah, the ending – was that an ending? We will never know I guess.
From the beginning on my reading of "A Bend of the River" I was sure there must be a connection between Joseph Conrad and VS Naipaul.
These two books are linked on many levels. Both play their action on or close to Kongo river, yet both don't name it. Both deal with human nature more then with anything else....
"A Bend in the river" is the story of Salim, a Muslim of Indian origin, who lived in unnamed city on Africa East. At some moment in time he bought a store in the midland of the continent on "a bend in the river". His story is from now on related to the political turmoil of the country (possibly Congo) caused by its dictator - the Big Man - most likely Mobutu S?s? Seko. What is the most important in the book, is the impact the dictatorship had on the people - how it changed their minds. How it attracted people, and how it betrayed the in the end.
The book shows, how troubled Africa is. How difficult it is for Africa to emerge the democracy, to disavow violence and corruption - how deep these problems are - and how they cast shadow on human souls.
The book has also a beautiful love story plot....
VS Naipaul forms a conclusion and writes his conclusion ... at the very beginning of the book:
"The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."
I was first shocked by the and by some interpretation of the book - as totally pessimistic. It seemed to me that there was a lot of hope in the book.
I thought like this, until I read about "Second Kongo War" ... it claimed almost 6 million victims.
What is Africa today? Who can you tell me ?
Disturbing? Yes. Thought provoking? Yes. Ultimately optimistic? No.
If you want a run-of-the-mill novel, this book is not for you. If you want to listen to something interesting, gripping, unique, and beautifully written, please listen.
Simon Vance, as always, is a delight. His subtle accents, delicate changes in tone, and intelligence are on full display here. He is my favorite narrator by far.
I found this book disturbing - not what I expected at all. It felt like a much too real look at the isolation and fear that many people on the planet live with daily. I can't say it left me hopeful about our chances of equalizing the use of resources on the planet or ending bigotry and nationalism. I'm like another reviewer here - needing to just sit with this and let it settle before reading anything else.
Technically I enjoyed the reader. The writing style is more diary-like than novel. I got lost a few times with story-line jumps that didn't flow, but I would recommend as a thought-provoking read.
"A flowing history from the heart of Africa"
If you're interested in central and east Africa in general, and the DRC in particular, you've doubtless read 'Heart of Darkness', 'King Leopold's Ghost' and 'In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz'. Don't miss this classic novel, which provides an engrossing first-person account of the life of an Indian shopkeeper in the remote east of what was then called Zaire. The view through the eyes of a single shopkeeper makes a grand accompaniment to those other, broader texts. The story begins before the ascendancy of President Mobutu Sese-Seko, describes the initial excitement that his authoritative reign created - often overlooked by other commentators - then traces the collapse of the regime and the country into corrupt anarchy. The characters that appear along the way symbolise many of the major attitudes towards this abortive African renaissance - the naive academic credulously serving the Big Man, disappointed ex-pats sliding into bored debauchery, arrogant young students bitter as they realise the lies they have been told, the Africa-loving priest brought to a grisly end - and, of course, the foreign traders trying to live in two worlds to profit from it all, yet with the dreadful risk of losing everything hanging over them, a threat that adds real tension to the story.
"Tedious without redemption"
I had such high hopes for this well regarded novel but those hopes were not well met. Simon Vance adopts an affectatious accent throughout which is irritating and relentless. The listening experience is further maligned by monotonous narrative offering very little relief. There is no story or momentum to the narrative at all. I often felt that I wished I was reading it, rather than listening to Vance witter on with his reading, in the hope that I would get more out of it. I persevered to the end, waiting for something to happen, in vain. Each listen felt like an endurance. Mr Naipul does paint a certain picture but he cannot tell a story and in A Bend in the River seemingly there is no actual tale to tell. My advice is to not listen to this version and read the book to try to get some depth from it instead.
"The horror ?"
Heart of Darkness 100 years later? Also set in the Congo, the story recounts the experience of an young Indian man who tries to make a living as a tradesman during the 1960'es and 70'es on the banks of the Congo. The author provides insight and perspective on the post-colonial experience, but the reader is still left outside the phenomena. The darkness remains, the wonder at the seemingly irrational behaviours, the violence, the randomness etc. But maybe that is exactly the message?
"A Bend in the River"
"In service to Sir Vidia"
The more we know about this man, the less we like him - it's the paradox of the literary celebrity age. If Sir Vidia wasn't such a marvellous writer, if he hadn't conjured a modern philosophe, if he didn't visit upon his British audience their post-colonial angst in the midst of our suburban ennui - then we wouldn't be at all interested in his Tuesday afternoon trysts. A great literary bequest laid low by a failure of heart - the heart of darkness seems to be within yourself Sir Vidia.
A good novel, though, well drawn characters standing on different corners of different streets following two rivers - each with a distinct bend.
Naipaul's own opening incantation 'The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.' now seems too big a challenge even for a man of Naipaul's exemplitude - what do you amount to old man?
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