The principal themes of A Bend in the River are reflected in the action, characters, and images of the novel. Its action, a journey into the heart of the continent, echoes that of Marlow’s earlier journey, and works as a palimpsest on the Conradian novel. It therefore recalls themes of the journey within, of exile, of work, responsibility, and dependence, and of the necessary corruption of personal and sexual relationships in a corrupt political system.
A Bend in the River is also a novel about postcolonial political and personal anxiety and about the effort to create an identity in a society whose form and history were provided by Europeans. The crisis of identity formation is seen in personal, economic, and political dimensions—from Salim’s and Indar’s “wild panic” to the economic rise and decline of the copper market to the Big Man’s alternate imitations of European styles and his radical inventions of a mythical African past. The competing ideologies in the novel are reflected in the competing voices of Africa (Zabeth, Metty, Ferdinand, and the Big Man), the town (Shoba, Mahesh, and Salim), the Domain’s verbal construct (Raymond), and the promise of Europe (Indar, Nazruddin).
Like many of Naipaul’s earlier novels, A Bend in the River is, finally, about the exile’s dilemma: the need to depend on the past and the opposing need to reject it entirely and forge out of the fragments of present confusion a link with the momentum of history. In this novel, it is Europe that appears to have, tentatively, secured a pact with responsibility, with the individual, and with history, and for Naipaul, that pact is civilization. Like Conrad, Naipaul realizes that lies, fiction, and civilization itself are all indispensable man-made constructs that protect and sustain one against the chaos within and without.