A Bend in the River

The Tournament of Books winds up next week. There are five books left in contention, three of which I have read and liked, the other two I’m not even adding to my to-read list based on all the commentary so far. All-in-all, I have more books left to root for in the ToB than I have teams left to root for in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

bendFortunately, baseball season is just around the corner and my bookclub keeps me reading. This month we discussed A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul. This was a very interesting read for me. I didn’t really enjoy reading it. I couldn’t relate to any of the characters and I thought the story was a bit slow and plodding. But the writing was fantastic. The thoughts and impressions and meaning of the book were powerful. I don’t quite know how to describe that disconnect, but I wasn’t the only person at bookclub who felt that way.

The story is told by Salim, a young man of Indian descent, who moves from his family’s home on the east coast of Africa to take over a merchant business in a more inland African nation. Neither the town, the river, nor the country are actually named. This is post-colonial Africa and the nation is independent, but now there are some rebel insurgents challenging the government in power. The country and it’s people are struggling to find their identity. Many of the characters are immigrants, besides, so they have an even harder time finding their place in a place that doesn’t know what it is in the first place. There are two phrases that are repeated several times in the book. The first: “What do you do? … You do what we all do. You carry on.” The second: “It isn’t that there’s no right and wrong here. There’s no right.” Those lines sort of become the themes of the book. Everyone just carries on, without any particular moral compass of right and wrong guiding them. Not very compelling to keep me reading, and yet, you feel like Naipaul is accurately describing many areas of Africa in those years, and it is kind of fascinating. No one at book club talked me into loving this book, but our discussion did help me appreciate it.

Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. He is also considered to be quite the arse, personally. Which seems to sum up my feelings for this book as well as anything.

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