Places: A Bend in the River

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1979

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Early 1970’s

Places DiscussedRiver

River. Bend in the River, AUnnamed river that connects the tropical African country’s interior to the outside world. It provides the major means for travel and transporting goods to the town in which the central character and narrator, Salim, settles. When progress first comes to the town, Salim finds the steamers with their first-class cabins an impressive contrast to the old barges and dugouts that were long the only means of transportation. However, by the time the novel ends, with Salim leaving the town for good, the steamer on which he travels has become dingy, and his first-class cabin is merely a travesty of luxury. The river itself is gradually filling with water hyacinths that hamper navigation. Like the town and the Domain on its banks, the river is a major symbol of the emptiness that pervades the novel.

Town

Town. The town in which Salim settles by a bend in the great river, also lacks a name. Once home to a thriving European community, it is half-destroyed during the nationalist war for independence. Salim travels there from an unnamed country on Africa’s east coast to set up a hardware-variety store. A keen observer, he reports on the town’s condition in such a way that he integrates its ruined monuments, dilapidated villas and shops, rutted-out streets, and overgrown gardens into the overall theme of desolation.

Bush

Bush. Term widely used in Africa for open country. The bush surrounding the town is seen by Salim as encroaching on the settlement and gradually obliterating its last traces of civilization. His description of the bush, like his description of the town, is dispassionate. He does not long for the return of European civilization; he simply records its passing. To European colonists, “bush” could mean forests, deserts, jungles, or mountains and was something to be feared and conquered. For Africans during the colonial era, the bush served as a refuge from the European presence. All of Africa was originally bush, and Naipaul shows how thoroughly it consumes the faint marks that European colonialism has left behind.

Domain

Domain. Next to the town lies the Domain, which was built as a symbol of modern Africa. Intended first as an international conference center, or possibly as an agricultural showpiece, the Domain eventually became a polytechnic university and research center. Underneath its glittery appearance, however, the establishment is shoddy. Its buildings are poorly constructed and deteriorating, its flashy furniture is tawdry, its gigantic swimming pool is unusable, its grounds are neglected. When Salim first visits the Domain and enters one of the houses built for staff, he is impressed. However, he soon realizes that the place, like everything else at the bend in the river, is a mockery–nothing more than a feeble attempt to show that this African country could be European. Its failure makes it merely one more monument to desolation.

BibliographyCampbell, Elaine. “A Refinement of Rage: V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River,” in World Literature Written in English. XVIII (November, 1979), pp. 394-406.Clemons, W. Review in Newsweek. XCIII (May 21, 1979), p. 90.Howe, I. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXI (May 13, 1979), p. 1.Kelly, Richard. V. S. Naipaul. New York: Continuum, 1989. Analyzes Naipaul’s novels, short stories, essays, and travel books through The Enigma of Arrival (1988).King, Bruce. V. S. Naipaul. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1993. A thorough introduction to Naipaul’s work.Lim, Ling-Mei. V. S. Naipaul’s Later Fiction: The Creative Constraints of Exile, 1984.McSweeney, Kerry. Four Contemporary Novelists. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1983. Includes one chapter on Naipaul’s novels, which provides an excellent discussion of the major themes in the writer’s oeuvre.Nixon, Rob. London Calling: V. S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Examines Naipaul’s cultural conflicts as they are reflected in his fiction.Prescott, Lynda. “Past and Present Darkness: Sources for V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River,” in Modern Fiction Studies. XXX (Autumn, 1984), pp. 547-559.Ramchand, Kenneth. The West Indian Novel and Its Background. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1970. An invaluable source of information about the cultural background that shaped Naipaul’s thinking.Sheppard, R. Z. Review in Time. CXIII (May 21, 1979), pp. 89-90.Updike, John. “Un Pé Pourrie.” The New Yorker, May 21, 1979, 141-144. An insightful review of A Bend in the River by a novelist who has also written about Africa.
Categories: Places