A Bend In The River Summary

V.S. Naipaul

A Bend In The River

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A Bend In The River Summary

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Exploring themes of identity and knowledge in post-colonial Africa, A Bend in the River, by V.S. Naipaul, tells the tale of a young Afro-Arab man of Indian decent struggling through life in an unnamed African country. It opens with the narrator, Salim, travelling from his hometown in East Africa to a market town somewhere in Central Africa, where he intends to start a new life as the owner of a shop he bought from an acquaintance named Nazruddin. Salim’s journey is frequently interrupted by armed men demanding money and, when he finally arrives, he finds the market town severely dilapidated, overgrown, and sparsely populated, and his shop rundown and disorganized. Since the European colonizers were driven out, people have been struggling and scattered and there are clashes over recently re-established tribal divisions. Salim hopes that people will eventually return and the town will become a prosperous trade hub once again. Until then, he runs a meager business selling basic household supplies to a small number of customers.

Salim’s first regular customer is Zabeth, a woman with a strong, repellent smell who buys supplies for her village. When Salim is joined by Metty, his family slave, Metty explains that Zabeth is a magician and the smell is the result of unpleasant, mystical perfumes designed to protect her as she travels to and from her remote home. Metty also reports that Salim’s family back East have been attacked and driven out of their home because of their ethnicity. Somewhat reluctantly, Salim becomes a guardian to Zabeth’s teenage son, Ferdinand, although he soon becomes annoyed by the boy’s requests to be sent to study in America, especially when other local boys start requesting this too. Through Ferdinand, Salim meets Father Huisman, a Belgian priest who runs the school Ferdinand attends, and who spends his time collecting African carvings while seeming to care little for Africa itself.

For a while, the town seems to be thriving. However, its growing prosperity angers local villagers, who stage a chaotic rebellion, attacking people and causing trouble until the President sends in mercenaries to violently suppress the uprising. Later, when Father Huisman is killed and decapitated on a visit out to the bush, an African-American comes and takes his collection of masks and carvings to put on display in a gallery he is opening in America. The town finally recovers some of its former prosperity, though it remains largely dilapidated and rubbish-strewn. A new complex of government buildings is constructed in an attempt to prove that the President’s rule is bringing wealth and stability, but Salim believes that this is largely a pretense and that, in reality, the complex is substandard and dysfunctional. Nevertheless, he attends a party there when invited by a childhood friend who has started lecturing at the new university. At the party, Salim meets Raymond, a white academic who was once an advisor to the President, but who has fallen out of favor and is now working on a history of the country for the President. He also meets Raymond’s much younger wife, a white woman named Yvette, and begins an affair with her. Although Salim regularly spends time with Raymond, he continues the affair with Yvette for some time, falling into a repetitive routine with both parties, while still maintaining his shop. Eventually, however, he becomes disillusioned and savagely beats Yvette, ending their affair. Life in the country become increasingly unstable, with growing political unrest.

Salim decides to get away and travels to England to visit Nazruddin, who is now a landlord in London. The area he stays in is full of Arabs and other foreigners searching for somewhere better than their countries of origin, all of them trying to make money, and often scamming their fellow compatriots to do so. Nazruddin, however, is not making huge amounts of money but remains happy, enjoying the area and the fact that his children all have good, reliable jobs. His daughter, Kareisha, is a pharmacist and also seems content. During Salim’s visit, an informal betrothal between him and Kareisha is formalized and the two become engaged. Salim returns to Africa to tie up loose ends and prepares to start again in London.

When Salim arrives home, he finds that his store has been nationalized by the government and is now owned by a “state trustee” called lazy Théotime, although Salim still has to run it. Desperate to make what money he can and get out of the country, Salim starts trading in ivory, keeping a stash of it hidden in his yard. However, when he refuses to help Metty financially, Metty reports the illegal ivory to the police and Salim is arrested. He is unable to pay his fine and is sent to jail. The jail is brutal and horrifying but Salim is released at the request of the Commissioner, who turns out to be Ferdinand. Ferdinand says that Salim must leave the next day, before he is arrested again, because the whole society is desperate and unstable. Salim flees on a steamer ship the following morning, shortly before the President arrives in town for an execution. The boat is attacked by armed men. The crew manage to repel the fighters but, as the novel ends, the passenger barge that the boat had been towing is loosed and floats away to the sound of gun shots, as the steamer, with Salim aboard, flees the carnage. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, A Bend in the River is widely regarded as an extremely well-crafted novel. Nevertheless, it has also been criticized for its presentation of post-colonial Africa as a place of chaos, violence, and primitivism. Although commentators disagree, many critics condemn the novel as justifying colonialism and some even accuse it of outright racism. Additionally, many observers have noted that, although the country in which the novel is set is never actually named, it is quite apparently Zaire under the rule President Mobutu.