Nov 4, 2018

Larry Puts A Bug in the River

men's book club review rating v.s. naipaul a bend in the river
Dinner and Acknowledgments

Glenn, who picked our previous two books set in Africa, served us Ethiopian food (Dark Star Safari) and Vietnamese food (Heart of Darkness).  Last Tuesday, Larry aimed for a different kind of authenticity.  He eschewed our novel's references to French food, Indian curry, and American fast food, and instead opted for the native food disdained by Naipaul's fastidious narrator.  Yes, Larry served us insects.  BUGS!! Accompanied by a delicious Ethiopian chicken paired with skewers of beef, couscous, and rice, Larry used high-protein cricket flour for his appetizers and dessert.  Although FDA-approved, his main ingredient was nevertheless milled crickets. Larry, thanks for the reminder that we are only a few notches up the food chain from what we eat.

We must also acknowledge George's presence at our dinner.  He drove down from Reno expecting our hospitality and instead ended up in a hotel room.  Next time, George, don't be so coy in your emails.  Ask for a place to stay!  Or, even better, drive down with John and shack up in the Bambi. 

Our Review and Discussion of A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

Its author a noted fixture of post-war British fiction and purveyor of post-colonial anxiety, A Bend In the River's narrative about a recently-independent African country showcased a well-crafted story (Doug), a fascinating geographic setting (Tom), and memorable images of people and places (Terry).  Those were the positive comments.  For most of us, though, Naipaul's writing served up a series of interesting vignettes punctuated by lengthy introspection.  Too lengthy, for some (Dan).

Set in the 1960's, Naipaul's protagonist, Salim, moves from his family's home on the coast inland to the "town at the bend in the river" where he sets himself up as a local merchant.  The town, and its country, go unnamed but the details in the story and the timing of Naipaul's writing suggest the setting is Zaire (formerly, and once again, the Congo) during the rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.  Salim, a descendant of Indian settlers and therefore a perpetual outsider, bears witness to the upheaval caused by the Big Man's consolidation of power in the face of tribal unrest and a persistent colonial influence.  He observes--with irony and detachment--the African "culture" overlaid on European-funded aid projects, the Big Man's increasing cult of personality, and the shifting allegiances within the local population, including among his friends.

Naipaul's novel has all the earmarks of a Great Novel:  family and politics, race and assimilation,  money and violence, plus lots of literary acclaim.  And yet, as a group, we mustered more respect than affection for Naipaul's storytelling.  We enjoyed the history lesson (Dean), compared it to our own experiences in Africa (Stan, Paul, Tom), and yet still found it wanting.  Paul's headline review (schizophrenia, annoyance, misogyny, conflict) was almost as damning as Dan's refusal to read beyond the halfway point. In the end, our patience was tried more by Naipaul's style (a colonial languor seems to infect his writing) than his substance.  Too bad, because a good story definitely lurks within the book's four long chapters.  

Our Rating of A Bend in the River

Despite all the kvetching, when it came time to rate Naipaul, we gave him the benefit of the doubt with a very decent 6.5.  Notably, our ratings were all within a 5-8 range, which indicates a closer consensus than our comments suggested when we sat down for dinner.  Larry, thanks for pushing us to read a title we had previously rejected but clearly found of interest last Tuesday.  

Next Up:  American Prison by Shane Bauer

Stan could not have argued for a more eclectic set of titles.  He gave us three options:  1)  The Old Man and the Sea paired with Animal Farm, which we rejected as two titles with nothing in common except their length; 2) The Swerve (Greenblatt's prizewinning historiography), which Doug warned us would be slow going and some suspected might be just another Sapiens (you know, the Convenient-Theory-That-Explains-It-All kind of book); and 3) American Prison, whose author infiltrated a for-profit prison and then wrote about it in Mother Jones.  We picked the last option and will steel ourselves for the polemic we know is coming (this did appear in Mother Jones, after all).


  1. Over dinner we discussed colonialism and whether it was "good" for Africa. It was brought up that Naipaul believed that Africa was better off with colonial states. Perhaps this was due to lack of care the colonialists had for preparing these countries to stand on their own once the resources were denuded, or revolution tossed them out. Africa seems further troubled by tribalism which is reflected in Naipaul's text, and the divisive situations in many of the countries today.

  2. Yes, there was some commentary about Naipaul's cynical take on African independence and the advantages of colonial rule. But I recall that we didn't explore this much because Stan took umbrage at Paul's (?) suggestion that development assistance from Africare and other NGOs may have contributed to problems of corruption, cronyism, etc. Stan, you can't have it both ways. Either you were there to provide assistance or you were merely a tourist. If the former, don't pretend that your "assistance" didn't disrupt the tribal lifestyle that you were so charmed by. Now, when is someone going to mention the spear?

  3. My previous comment seems to have been deleted, clearly a slight against the Larkspur tribe, showing that Andrew “big man” McCullough, one of the leaders and politicians of the Rafael tribe, is attempting to assert his power. Plus I can’t unsee that image of John and George “shacking up” in the Bambi.

    That said, I’ll also comment on the book. I really wanted to enjoy this book – I’ve heard much about Naipaul, I spent several months traveling in Africa, and we enjoyed Conrad and Theroux. The story is largely set in a town on a river that flows langorously through the jungle; and I found unfortunately the story was langorous as well. Of course that adjective, while meaning slow, can also mean pleasurable and the story was not without its plusses. It was interesting to get a more visceral sense of the psychology and gyrations of post-colonial Africa as it came to grips with being unable to go back, but hampered in going forward.

    I found no one in the book who I liked or wanted to do well, including our central character who has a particularly bizarre Me Too moment that leaves us wondering who this guy is and why we are reading about him. While literature doesn’t exist to make us root for a character, at the same time the combination of a slow read and an irritating focus of the story left me somewhat ambivalent about the book. I'm glad I read it, but not racing to recommend it.

  4. As always, I'll ignore Paul's tribalist paranoia and agree with him that Salim's sudden attack on Yvette was both jarring and uncomfortable to read, especially in this #MeToo era. Maybe it was Naipaul acting out his own legendary, adulterous behavior? Regardless, it was one of several scenes that made me think that Naipaul had not actually crafted his story especially carefully (sorry, Doug) but instead woke up every morning wondering how he was going to type his daily quota. That would explain why there are repeated digressions and plot twists that don't really enhance the story.

    Now, I ask again, when is someone going to mention that damn spear?

  5. Sometimes the best MBC books are not the highest rated books, but rather the discussion that ensues at the dinner table. Such, I proffer here is A Bend in the River. MBC has read two books that used the African continent as a backdrop -- Heart of Darkness and Dark Star Safari. But in A Bend in the River, Africa is the story. A conflicted story that the Nobel prize winning author never seems to fully resolve for himself or the reader and thus, resorts (in my opinion) to a deus ex machina ending.

    That lack of resolution seemed to drive the MBC discussion with, as reflected in the previous comments, several differing viewpoints on Africa and the role of colonial powers on its development. Such discussions around a dinner table, make for me MBC a worthwhile endeavor and certainly MBC's raison d'etre.

    With the passing of VS Naipaul, I thought it appropriate to offer up A Bend in the River and appreciate that MBC went along for the journey.