Linda's Reviews > A Bend in the River

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul
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Mar 12, 15

bookshelves: fiction
Read from February 17 to March 05, 2015

I did want to like this book. . . . I picked it up at some point after having read a piece about Naipaul in the New York Times several years ago. I can't remember now what the piece was, exactly, but it talked about him as an author and mentioned A Bend in the River as a notable work, and I was intrigued. After having read it, though, I have to say I'm underwhelmed. The prose is well-crafted, no doubt. However, the story itself didn't keep me as engaged as I expected - in fact, my interest dwindled the longer I read. I think I just kept waiting for some great epiphany about the narrator, the world around him, or the other characters. What I got instead was little in terms of revelations, mainly some philosophical/rhetorical wondering, and a generally dispiriting tone.

There are also a few aspects that I found especially distasteful, though I imagine they played better when the book was first published in the late seventies than they do now. For one thing, it was hard to reconcile myself to the constant reference to "Africa" and "Africans". It's clear Naipaul did not want to identify the country he is speaking about (and it's also clear that the country in question is Belgian Congo/Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo). But the effect, particularly jarring from today's perspective, is to essentialize an entire continent of 54 states and countless ethnic groups into a wildly over-generalized notion of "Africa" and "Africans". Also shocking to the 21st century reader is an act of utterly gratuitous domestic violence, that (despite the perpetrator's feeling guilty afterwards) is treated as a completely unremarkable -- and supposedly, in the perpetrator's emotional state -- understandable. The woman even holds herself to blame for it.

So, on the whole, something of a disappointment. The story didn't grab me -- though there is plenty of good writing in there. The author provides evocative descriptions of place, and some excellent turns of phrase (for example, on the strange compression and conflation of place-sense that airline travel causes: "The airplane is faster than the heart.")

I'll leave off with one quote that resounded particularly strongly with me:

"'You can go back many times to the same place. And something strange happens if you go back often enough. You stop grieving for the past. You see that the past is something in your mind alone, that it doesn't exist in real life. You trample on the past, you crush it. In the beginning it is like trampling on a garden. In the end you are just walking on ground. That is the way we have to learn to live now. The past is here." He touched his heart. "It isn't there.' And he pointed at the dusty road."


(p. 112-113)
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02/17 marked as: currently-reading
03/12 marked as: read
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