Study Guide

A Bend in the River

by V. S. Naipaul

A Bend in the River Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The action of the novel is set in postcolonial Africa, in a state undergoing the traumas of self-definition after independence, and concerns the effects of change on the lives of several Indian Africans, Europeans, and native Africans living in Mobuto Sese Seko’s Zaire. As a journey into the heart of what the Europeans called “darkness,” the novel echoes Joseph Conrad’s earlier Heart of Darkness (1902) in structure and spirit. Its structure is a journey that reverses the one made earlier by slaves: Salim the narrator (like Conrad’s Marlow) journeys inland from the coast to do a job and earn a living, but he finds his identity threatened by his position as a non-African Indian in a “half-made society,” envying more secure neocolonialists privileged by the Big Man. He leaves for England, returns to Africa, and at the end of the novel, flees for his life to, one assumes, Europe. The irony of the once-colonized native finding refuge in the country responsible for his state of restless exile and insecurity is one of many circular and ironic movements in the novel. It suggests, as in his adulterous affair with Yvette, the perpetuation of one of the consequences of colonization: the cyclic process of exile and personal exploitation, as well as the recurring parasitic nature of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized.

The novel is in four parts: “The Second Rebellion,” “The New Domain,” “The Big Man,” and “Baitle.” The first part introduces the reader to Salim, his background, his problem with his own identity and that of his family (who were slave traders), his friendships with Indar and the narcissistic entrepreneurial couple Mahesh and Shoba. This section ends with the death of...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

A Bend in the River Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In A Bend in the River, as in all of his later works, Naipaul’s dominant theme is alienation. The characters in this novel are not simply outsiders, such as Mr. Biswas among the Tulsis, but bewildered individuals attempting to survive in a rapidly changing society, where the rules are changed daily. The setting is a state in central Africa that has recently undergone a revolution and a civil war. The new government is under the control of a president, actually a dictator, who rules his country with the use of informers, youth squads, disappearances, and executions.

Into this reign of terror comes the protagonist, Salim, an East African Indian who has left the coastal area where his family has lived and traded for generations and bought a shop in an isolated village located on a bend in the river, which he believes should make it an ideal trading place. On his drive across Africa, as he bribes his way through road blocks, at times Salim questions his own sanity. He reaches his destination and settles down in the partially deserted village, hoping for peace and profit, but secure in the fact that he does have a home to which he can return. Unfortunately, he soon learns that his coastal village has been destroyed in a revolution and his family has dispersed. Now Salim is truly marooned.

One of the points that Naipaul makes in A Bend in the River is that one does not have to be alone to be isolated. Salim is not alone. There are a number of expatriates in the village, Belgians, Greeks, Asians, and Indians, many of whom have remained through the turmoil, who now are waiting for life to stabilize. Every family, however, is preoccupied with itself and its own survival; though there is civility, there is no sense of community. Even his best friends, an elderly Indian couple, Shoba and Mahesh, are so preoccupied with themselves that they ignore the people and...

(The entire section is 773 words.)

A Bend in the River Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Salim envies his well-to-do friend Indar, who informs him that he is going away to England to study at a famous university. Indar explains that one has to be strong to continue to live in Africa and that “We’re not strong. We don’t even have a flag.” It is against such a backdrop of insecurity and fear that Salim decides to leave the coast and his Muslim community and head into the interior. “To stay with my community,” Salim acknowledges, “to pretend that I had simply to travel along with them, was to be taken with them to destruction. I could be master of my fate only if I stood alone.”

Nazruddin, a family friend, offers Salim his abandoned shop in the interior of Africa, at the bend of a river, in a settlement that has been half destroyed during the violence that preceded the area’s political independence. Salim travels to the interior, takes over the small shop, and spends the next seven years attempting to establish himself before the violence and social chaos return.

He befriends some Indian families, trades with a mysterious character named Zabeth, a magician from downriver, and agrees to look after her son, Ferdinand, who attends school at the local lycée. He soon acquires a living companion when his family, which broke up and dispersed during a social revolution on the coast, sends him their slave, Ali, who takes the new name of Metty (a name that means “someone of mixed race”). Salim later befriends a white couple, Raymond and Yvette. Raymond works for the local ruler, Big Man (a character drawn after Joseph Mobutu, the king of Zaire); Big Man is the closest white personal friend of Raymond, who manages a university in the Domain, a group of new buildings in the town’s former white suburb.

Father Huismans is a teacher at the lycée, where Ferdinand enrolls as a student. Although the lycée is a remnant of the colonial period, Father Huismans possesses a genuine love for Africa and its traditions. He amasses a large collection of African masks that are intended for specific religious purposes. Salim observes that, although Father Huismans knows a great deal about African religion, he does not seem concerned about the state of the country. During the subsequent revolution to purify Africa and cast off European influences, Father Huismans becomes a victim of...

(The entire section is 962 words.)