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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 208

A Bend in the River is set in twentieth-century Africa in a country that is not named. It is the story of an Indian Muslim shopkeeper named Salim who buys a shop in Central Africa from his friend Nazruddin. During his journey, he comes across many challenges, including men who...

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A Bend in the River is set in twentieth-century Africa in a country that is not named. It is the story of an Indian Muslim shopkeeper named Salim who buys a shop in Central Africa from his friend Nazruddin. During his journey, he comes across many challenges, including men who stop him and demand money. By the time he makes it to the town, he finds that the shop is in disarray. The townspeople had driven the Europeans out of the town and had since been struggling to get on their feet. Salim gets the store in order and develops relationships with the townspeople.

The town goes through many changes. At one time it seems to be doing well, and at another it time it goes through distress. Salim has a love affair with a woman named Yvette. Eventually, Salim decides to leave and goes to England. He decides he wants to stay in London and start from scratch. When he gets back, he finds that the store has been taken over. To save enough to move to London, he starts illegally trading ivory. He gets reported and is arrested. Salim flees on a ship which ends up getting attacked. The book ends with Salim escaping the attack.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773

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 country around them, seemingly convincing themselves that they are really living in India. When Salim visits them, there is no conversation; it is as if by ignoring the world outside their door, they can be safe from it. It is this kind of isolation that prevents the villagers from expressing outrage when the highly respected scholar and priest, Father Huismans, is murdered and mutilated, evidently because he had collected ritual masks and therefore seemed to be mocking the native religion. Many of the expatriates seem to see his death as an object lesson: this is what happens when one ventures forward, when one attempts to develop a community among peoples so different from one another.

For a time, the optimism of Father Huismans seems to be justified. Mahesh emerges from his isolation to acquire the Bigburger franchise. The president begins to construct a model town, the Domain, on the site of the old colonial suburb. Salesmen and consultants arrive from Europe, and Salim’s childhood friend, the university-educated Indar, appears, a guest of the government, to work at the university turned polytechnic, whose chief function now is to train young men to be members of the president’s staff. Salim’s life becomes even more interesting when he has an affair with the wife of the president’s white adviser. When he recognizes that he is beginning to believe the president’s pronouncements, however, Salim feels the need to get some perspective and takes a trip to London.

When he returns to Africa, Salim finds that the promise of progress was an illusion. Caught between the oppressive president and his trigger-happy troops and a newly formed liberation army, everyone is terrified. Salim’s business is nationalized, he loses most of his savings in the difficult process of getting money out of the country, and, finally, he is jailed, warned, and forced to flee the country.

The situation in A Bend in the River is what Naipaul finds characteristic of the Third World: For all the talk about a master plan, the leaders of these new countries have no real direction in mind. They cannot decide whether to destroy the vestiges of Europe or to mimic it, as the president did with his Domain, and they cannot seem to develop an orderly, progressive society. The only perceivable pattern is the survival of the vicious. As Salim says, to someone who does not live in these countries, their governments appear comic, and certainly there are many comic scenes in A Bend in the River. Yet, as Salim realizes, one who does choose to stay in the postcolonial chaos can lose everything, including one’s life.

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