Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul -- A Book Review

This is my eighth book completed of the 1% Well-Read Challenge where we've chosen to read 10 books in 10 months from the 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die list. The challenge will run again next year -- I'll let you know when it's time to sign up. Many of the books on the list are literary award winners and/or considered to be significant for some major reason. I have enjoyed "sampling" the list this year and look forward to what's next...

I chose A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul because I had a vague recollection of reading another book by him, A House for Mr. Biswas, in a Contemporary Literature course in college. In order to be selected for the course reading, he would have been considered to be one of the great literary contributors of my era. I couldn't remember why so when I saw this book on the list...I chose it to see what it was about V.S. Naipaul that makes him so significant.

Mr. Naipaul won the Booker prize in 1971 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 for his work In a Free State but I'm sorry to say that I didn't like A Bend in the River. Naipaul is writing about an unnamed town in Africa post-colonialism during a period of Independence. The book is narrated by Salim who is an Indian Muslim and who has grown up in a cosmopolitan coastal town of Africa and moved to this interior town to become a merchant. He doesn't really identify as African or European and narrates the story from outside of it, as a mere observer. Frankly, his dis-passion, his third-personism and his willingness to be led along by outside events gets on my nerves.

Salim has few if any character traits that I like. He observes the rapid changes and the conflict between African values/customs to Imperialist with little emotion. He enters into an adulterous affair, eventually physically beating his lover and rejecting her without very little remorse. Events happen to Salim; he doesn't happen to them -- so I just didn't like him.

The story is really about what has happened to Africa after "independence" and the fact that they are really not independent. The new African leader has adopted imperialistic attitudes and the spirit and history of the African bush is being usurped by African mimicry of European ideals, education and commerce. I get the message of the book. In fact, ironically, the message for the entire book is contained in it's opening sentence...

"The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."

I really felt like Salim was a man who was nothing. When the town that he had made his home for his whole life is turning violent and his business is taken away, Salim merely forfeits his past there and escapes. He even refuses to really help his faithful family servant who has been "family" to him. It's all very anti-Susan and what I believe in.

I'm sure I'm at error here. I mean, who says I must always have to relate to the main character? But with a topic that I know little about -- Africa's history post-independence -- I need a character that can make that history come to life for me. Salim just wasn't my man.

There is one thing I can appreciate about Mr. Naipaul. I appreciate that he is attempting to resurrect the history of the vanquished and the defeated; that he is exposing the fact that history is being written by the "winners" and that stories are being lost. I believe this is the reason his works are notable. I remember enjoying A House for Mr. Biswas much better.

I'll be reading both Possession by A.S. Byatt and listening to Black Dahlia on my Ipod for the next few weeks. The deadline is February 28. You can check out the list of all the books I've read in this challenge on the list in my sidebar and I hope you will join us next year.

On a more positive note, my book club just finished Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I loved that one and the recording from Audible was outstanding. It also has a great first line....

"The small boys came early to the hanging..." Pillars is a great epic read.

8 comments:

Lisa said...

I hope you like Possession! It's one of my favorite books! Maybe I'll re-read it along with you!

Judy S. said...

Hi Susan, I loved Pillars of the Earth, too. Have you also read the sequel?

Paula Hewitt said...

i havent read this, but i know what you mean. i have real problems enjoying a novel if i dont like (or cant relate to) the narrator or protagonist. Ive been meaning to read possession for ages - its on the shelf next to Captain Corellis mandolin. if im not careful i wont read any of them and just read your reviews instead!
I was impressed with Pillars of the Earth (not so much with other books of KF's Ive read, but i havent read the sequel yet).

freebird said...

It doesn't sound like a good book to me. I like happy endings for one thing and a lot of classics and "must reads" don't have them. I read to enjoy myself; it's my form of entertainment versus the TV.

Mary Timme said...

I spend very little time reading what is popular anymore. Only when I'm on reading frenzy which is when I'm pouring over stuff quickly just to be distracted. Hope you like your books, though. I just won't read one I don't like.

Simona said...

Susan, just to let you know I did my work on pansy block you can find the final result on my blog!
Hope you like it!

Michelle said...

I remember picking this book up at the library and flicking through some of the pages. I put it down again and after reading your review I'm glad that I did. Maybe I'll give Naipaul's other work a look in the future. Thanks for the review..

Possession is on my TBR pile as well!

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