A Bend in the River is based on V. S. Naipaul’s observations during a 1975 visit to Zaire, a new African nation that had formerly been the Belgian Congo. In Zaire, Naipaul encountered several worlds at once: the Congo of Joseph Conrad, a writer whose clear insights into that country and into human character had fascinated Naipaul since childhood; the Africa of the bush, seemingly eternal and indomitable, despite Arab and Belgian attempts to civilize it; and the new Africa, the so-called authentic Africa of Joseph Mobutu. Naipaul quickly saw through the rhetoric and propaganda of the new government and of the ostentatious façades of Zaire’s new art and architecture, and he exposed Mobutu’s kingship as a temporary reign of self-aggrandizement, greed, and terror. In creating his novel, A Bend in the River, Naipaul combined his experiences in Zaire (which he documented in his critical essay on Mobutu, “A New King for the Congo: Mobutu and the Nihilism of Africa,” 1975) with his personal preoccupation with such themes as the mingling of different cultures and the deterioration of dreams, sexuality, and personal and cultural security.
The hero of the novel, Salim, comes from a coastal Muslim family that in its customs is closer to the Hindus of northwest India, from which it had come centuries earlier. As the narrator, he is established both as an African and as an outsider, for, as he points out, the coast is not truly African but rather an area settled by Arabs, Indians, Persians, and Portuguese. This cultural background helps to explain Salim’s growing sense of dislocation and alienation as he attempts to come to grips with the bush (represented by Zabeth), the “new” Africa of Big Man, the philosophy of his friend, Indar, and his sexual and cultural...
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