Here you will find a A Bend in the River summary (V. S. Naipaul's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.
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Salim, an ethnically Indian Muslim hailing from the east African coast, decided to relocate to an unnamed African country's interior. He made this decision out of concern for the political independence sweeping across Africa. He bought a trading goods store from a family friend, Nazruddin, who had spent several years in the interior. The town he moved to was an old colonial hub located at a major river's bend. The township was in ruins, with relics of a once mighty empire destroyed by the local Africans as retaliation against their former colonizers. As a result of the political climate, only a few Europeans remained and most Africans had returned to their villages. In the midst of an uprising that severely damaged the Indian community on the coast, Salim’s family sent Metty, a half-African former slave, to assist in his shop. The shop dealt in basic household goods, with Salim's first customer being a renowned sorceress and African trader named Zabeth. As the town began to recover, it was hit by rebel activity, which was swiftly quashed by white mercenaries sent by the President. Following this, the town experienced an economic boom and regained its status as a regional trading center. The President seized a nearby section of land, once a European suburb, to construct a modern polytechnic university. However, the locals were largely oblivious to the activities of this institution, which felt like a separate world to them. As things progressed, Salim became involved with Raymond's young wife, Yvette. An affair ensued, but it fizzled out as Salim felt uncomfortable and attacked Yvette. Political unrest began to grow in the town, and the President's denouncement of the Youth Guard, a group he had established to maintain order, led to the formation of a Liberation Army. As violence escalated, Salim decided to leave the country and visit Nazruddin in London. Upon his return, he discovered that his shop had been nationalized and taken over by an inexperienced African named Théotime. Salim, kept on as manager and chauffeur, began trading illegally, which eventually led to his arrest. After spending a few days in jail, he was released and advised by the commissioner, Zabeth's son Ferdinand, to leave town as soon as possible. Heeding the advice, Salim departed the town on the eve of the President's arrival.
The story commences with the protagonist, Salim, sharing the circumstances of his purchasing a store from a family acquaintance, Nazruddin. The store was situated in a post-colonial town within an unidentified African country which had just obtained its freedom. Because of a local uprising, Nazruddin was compelled to abandon his venture in the town, choosing to relocate his family to Uganda, a comparatively stable country. Owing to the upheaval, Salim was able to buy the store at a discounted price, and he journeyed from the Eastern African coastline to the interior of the continent. Upon reaching the town, nestled at a large river's curve, he discovered a dilapidated region, partially reoccupied by the wilderness. Salim recounts his first encounter with a customer, a businesswoman named Zabeth, referred to as a marchande, or "merchant". Despite the risks and hardships, she would brave the journey from her remote village to the town every month to stock up on essentials for her community. Salim saw her as a shrewd entrepreneur. Additionally, she was known for her unique fragrance, caused by the balms she used for protection against sinister forces, earning her the reputation of a famous witch.
Salim narrates about his lineage, tracing back to the East African coast where his ancestors, Indian Muslims, had settled among various immigrants. Contrary to the popular belief, he didn't view the coast as authentically African. Accounts of his family's enduring African presence are limited and vague, spanning events like the advent of Europeans, the removal of Arabs, and the growth and collapse of British imperialism. Salim laments that his only source of historical knowledge is European-authored books. The dynamic changes over time did not disrupt the Indian community’s lifestyle. They cohabitated with ex-slaves in an expansive compound, leading to a racial blend over generations. Although a part of the community, Salim always felt like a stranger. He developed a keen, "detached" approach towards observing life, which led him to conclude that his civilization lagged behind Europe. He prophesied a bleak future for his community post the European exodus from Africa, but still held a soft spot for them.
Salim reveals that Zabeth had a child, Ferdinand, with a southern trader. After the death of his father, Ferdinand moved north to be with his mother’s tribe. When he was in his mid-teens, Zabeth took him to Salim, expressing her wish for him to study at the local secondary school. Despite its dilapidated state, Belgian teachers revitalized the institution. Unlike Zabeth's traditional African lifestyle, she wanted Ferdinand to adapt to the changing African society. Ferdinand lived in the school and reported to Salim daily. Salim found Ferdinand to be polite and reserved, but he saw a distant, "slightly mocking" look in his eyes. He felt Ferdinand's face resembled African masks, making him enigmatic and hard to read. Ferdinand and Metty, another character, spent their time socializing at local pubs. While Salim was concerned about their antics, he didn't criticize Metty as he too relished similar pursuits. However, he decided never to let Metty see him with an African woman to avoid upsetting his family. Salim's house and shop were in poor condition, with his goods stacked in piles on the floor. The house, previously owned by a Belgian painter, contained her paintings of European life. These artworks added to Salim's melancholic aura. Due to his mixed tribal origins, Ferdinand felt alienated and confused about his identity. He imitated various people, including his teachers and Salim himself. Once, he asked Salim about his views on Africa's future, which made Salim question whether Ferdinand's understanding of Africa was rooted in his personal experiences or his education. Over time, Salim felt a growing distance from Ferdinand; while Salim viewed life as straightforward, Ferdinand's understanding got more complex as he acquired more knowledge.
Salim visits the lycée intending to return a purloined ledger to Father Huismans, the head Belgian priest. Instead, he meets another Belgian who informs him that Father Huismans is away in the bush. Salim is taken aback by the man's complaints about the African students and the local cuisine. He appears malnourished to Salim. On a subsequent visit to the school, Salim learns that the man has departed on the steamer two days earlier. Salim shares his perspective of Father Huismans, a man in his forties with a penchant for collecting local religious artifacts. Upon returning from the bush with a mask and a wood carving, Father Huismans announces, "semper aliquidnovi." He elucidates that the Latin phrase translates to "out of Africa always something new." Despite being a Christian, Father Huismans' fascination with African spirituality puzzles Salim. However, Salim finds admirable the priest's view of Africa as a treasure trove of wonders. Father Huismans deciphers the town's official slogan, Misceriqueprobatpopulos et foederajungi, which translates to "He approves of the mingling of the peoples and their bonds of union." This inscription is etched on a monument commemorating six decades of the colonial steamer service. The priest links the phrase to a poem about a Roman hero who briefly stayed in Africa en route to Italy. The poem depicts the gods preventing the mixing of Romans and Africans by urging the hero to continue to Italy, a sentiment the town's motto contradicts. Salim infers that the Latin motto imbues Father Huismans with a sense of historical grandeur, justifying the European civilization's presence in Africa. Father Huismans acknowledges the supremacy of European culture and praises colonial achievements. However, he also admits that colonialism marked the demise of "true Africa."
Local villagers began to migrate to the town when whispers of war circulated. Salim perceived this impending violence as part of the ongoing cycle of conflict that began after independence. The President deployed a white mercenary army to suppress the violence. Caught in the crossfire between African rebels and government forces, Salim chose neutrality out of fear. The escalating tensions rattled him increasingly. As an outsider, he felt disadvantaged compared to the local Africans, whom he perceived to be more equipped to handle the impending hardships.
After the rebellion was suppressed, the town bounced back, once again becoming a significant trading hub. Salim, among others, saw his fortunes rise with the town's economic growth, and his fears of another rebellion diminished. But even during this prosperous period, Salim felt disconnected from the townfolk and was wary of the arrogant young soldiers stationed there. Salim was in touch with Nazruddin who was in Uganda, engaged in a cotton-ginning business amidst political turmoil. This reminded Salim of the cyclical nature of instability, potentially threatening his town. Regardless, he chose to press on. Unlike Salim's cautious approach to the economic boom, his friend Mahesh turned into an ambitious businessman, exploring various opportunities. After some unsuccessful ventures, Mahesh resorted to smuggling ivory and gold. Salim was against this, but Mahesh defended his actions, arguing no rights existed in their situation. Mahesh eventually gave up smuggling and legally prospered by opening a Bigburger franchise. He appointed his houseboy, Ildephonse, as an informal "manager". Ildephonse behaved obsequiously around Mahesh, but seemed devoid of emotion when alone. Amid the town's prosperity, the President claimed a large nearby bushland as the Domain of the State and ordered its quick development. Buildings were swiftly erected, and even without any official explanation, Salim envisioned the President as "creating modern Africa". Despite the modern-looking buildings, some parts of the project stagnated. A proposed farm never materialized, with tractors left to decay. Eventually, the Domain evolved into a university town and research hub, attracting an international mix of academics.
Salim and Metty's relationship changed, with Metty becoming less cheerful and Salim feeling desolate. An unexpected visit from Salim's old friend Indar disrupted their lives. Indar had a wealthier upbringing and enjoyed a higher education in England, making Salim feel inadequate and reigniting his ambition to improve his life. Salim and Indar conversed about politics and recent unrest, with Indar sharing his recent visit to Salim's family and his first trip home since going to university. He noted that air travel eased the emotional distress of homecomings as it involved less time for reminiscing. Indar was in town by the government's invitation to work at the local polytechnic, making Salim feel comfortable and contented that he finally found a companion of his own kind. Indar introduced Salim to Domain, a side of town Salim knew little about due to its association with the President's politics. The Domain had luxurious, well-kept homes with servants, inhabited by seemingly energetic and contented foreigners. Indar was accepted as part of this community, causing Salim to feel even more alienated yet simultaneously drawn to the buzz of Domain. Salim realized people in the Domain were interested in shaping "the high idea of a new Africa" and creating a new African identity. Contrary to the town where 'African' often had negative undertones, in the Domain, the term symbolized a promising future and a person evolving to inherit the newly liberated continent.
Indar and Salim were guests at a gathering thrown by Yvette, married to an influential historian known as Raymond. Salim was instantly charmed by Yvette in her elegant black silk dress and her youthful presence, despite her husband being in his fifties. Her house was adorned with African decor, which inspired Salim. He particularly enjoyed watching dancing couples and felt a deep emotional connection to a song by Joan Baez about love and loss, considering the paradoxical nature of its sweet melodies and sorrowful themes. Raymond, caught up with his work, eventually joined the party. He shared his frustration about the misleading nature of historical truths, arguing that a lot of history remains untold, hence inaccessible. In response to Indar's optimistic views about time revealing all truths, Raymond remained firm in his belief that some historical truths are permanently lost. Salim was introduced to Raymond by Indar, who encouraged Raymond to narrate his encounter with the President. Raymond had been a college lecturer during the colonial times, and his meeting with the President was facilitated by the President's mother. The President, then a troubled school dropout, was advised by Raymond to gain practical experience in the Defence Force before joining politics. Raymond was full of praise for the President's achievements while in office, including military discipline and peacekeeping. He admired the President’s ability to adapt to new ideas and his instinctive understanding of public needs. He stated bluntly that Africa could only be ruled effectively by an African. In his ongoing project, a compilation of the President's public speeches, Raymond claimed that consistent traces of the President's early life struggles could be found. He emphasized that despite the increasing sophistication of the President's public addresses, his sorrow for his mother's humiliations was always palpable.
Post-Yvette's party, as Salim and Indar conversed by the river, the latter shared contrasting views about Raymond. Initially, he admired Raymond's intellect, only to later call him irrelevant. Salim deduced that Indar wanted him to see the reality beneath Domain life's glitz. Salim noticed Indar growing more despondent and learned about his past. Indar, who had studied abroad, believed that the nomadic nature of people prevented lingering on history, but also acknowledged the struggle of discarding one's past. He found comfort in the phrase, "the image of the garden trampled until it becomes ground," which he remembered during a tough time in his third year in England. Indar admitted his worry about his family as he left East Africa and his initial wonder on reaching England. However, he felt limited by his upbringing, which he felt restricted his understanding of the world. He realized he had always taken the world for granted and never thought of personally contributing to it. Despite his academic proficiency, Indar felt he gained little from university, attributing this partly to his demeanor. He compared his attitude to someone from a developing country trying to downplay their awe at landing in London, leading to his constant disappointment and confusion throughout university. As his course ended, his classmates secured promising jobs, but Indar felt out of place. He approached the university's Appointments Committee, only to realize their bias towards “English boys in English jobs.” A female lecturer suggested to Indar that his dual cultural understanding qualified him for diplomatic service. Following her advice, he approached the Indian embassy, but his experience there was mortifying. After the embassy fiasco, Indar pondered his return home but envisioned an idealized African village rather than his coastal home. He realized his fantasy was far from reality and noticed how London, unlike Africa's wilderness, was meticulously designed by humans. It dawned on him that he was his own person. He decided he would not only create his own job but also live in a city like London. Choosing to forget the Indian greats like Gandhi and Nehru, he decided to completely let go of his past.
Salim often encountered Yvette and Indar and held them close to his heart, despite struggles to understand their individual characters. He gradually developed feelings for Yvette, while his jealousy towards Indar was gradually replaced by sympathy as he learned more about Indar's history. As Indar's depression deepened and his departure time neared, Ferdinand, having completed his polytechnic studies, was also preparing to leave. Salim went with Ferdinand to the steamer bound for the capital, where Ferdinand was expected to start an administrative cadetship. On their way, they faced checks from both male and female officials - the President's move towards gender equality in civil service. The President also insisted on people addressing one another as "citizen" rather than "mister" or "misses". Observing the steamer, Salim noticed its organization: white-painted first-class cabins located at the back, barrack-style second-class facilities towards the front, and a detachable barge with cages for poor African travelers. On the steamer, Salim and Ferdinand ran into Indar and Yvette. They shared beers in a bar on a lower deck, until a man announced the steamer's departure. Salim and Yvette then left, watching the steamer navigate its way down the river from the dock.
Once Ferdinand and Indar departed, Salim shared his enjoyment of Yvette's recent party and she responded by inviting him to a lunch lecture at her home the following day, an invitation he accepted. He visualized the steamer he would take, journeying fifteen miles down the river, attracting the local's canoe-like "dugouts" for a bit of entertainment before they paddled back upstream. Upon arriving at Yvette's home for the lunch, he was surprised to learn that she had cancelled the event without notifying him. Nonetheless, she offered to cook scrambled eggs, subsequently leaving him alone in the living room. In the full light of day, Salim found that Yvette's usually enchanting house appeared rather run-down.
Salim pondered Yvette's inability to see Raymond's true character at their first meeting, and felt uneasy about his entanglement with her, as he felt they were both in a similar predicament. His connection with Yvette also tied him to Raymond, sparking political fears due to the President's growing authority. Indar, despite promising Yvette to check on Raymond's book's chances, remained silent. Meanwhile, Raymond completed the book on the presidential speeches. At a dinner at Yvette and Raymond’s place, Yvette shared their past regular dining experiences with the President and how constant filming made conversing with him difficult. Eventually, Raymond was discarded by the President when he felt he no longer needed him. Raymond's application to an American university got rejected. His close ties with the President, while beneficial locally, had tarnished his international reputation. Still, Raymond's loyalty to the President remained unshaken. Salim thought Raymond adhered to a personal code that gave him self-assuredness, unlike Salim who was plagued by doubt. Salim appreciated Raymond's allegiance, which he displayed to his dinner guests, even defending the President when criticized, for example, the “the cult of the African madonna” in honor of the President’s mother. The publication of Raymond's book of speeches, albeit heavily modified, occurred. The finished product contained brief maxims in place of the lengthy speech extracts and commentary Raymond had initially put together. The book was printed in large numbers and ceremoniously distributed, but its content confounded most people. Despite this, Raymond's loyalty to the President remained, and Yvette became increasingly impatient.
Salim experienced a shrinking reality, becoming more emotionally reliant on Yvette, which intensified his obsession. Unexpectedly, Noimon, a notable Greek businessman, liquidated his assets and exited the town. This sudden departure shook other entrepreneurs, who interpreted it as the termination of the town's prosperity era. However, Mahesh had a different perspective. He argued that those who left in search of better opportunities elsewhere would soon realize their error. He asserted that none would have a better life than those who stayed behind. Salim initially criticized Mahesh’s self-satisfaction, but soon realized that he shared the same sentiment, leading to his inertia and “doing nothing.”
Salim felt relief when the President disbanded the Youth Guard, but this led to the police and officials becoming a nuisance. They began to bother him at his shop, seeking bribes. Salim felt that order and rule had been replaced by anarchy. The police arrested Metty, prompting Salim to go to the station to get him. He noticed the President's photograph with his chief’s stick and the motto: Discipline Avant Tout, which translates to “Discipline Above All.” Salim hoped the President would restore order, but instead, ex-Youth Guard members formed a Liberation Army. This sparked violence in the town, with the Liberation Army launching a campaign against imperialism and foreign influence. With increasing violence, Salim felt more at risk and unsure of his next move. Raymond finally admitted to himself that he would not regain the President’s favour due to the rise of the Liberation Army, making him look like a broken man. Meanwhile, Salim's affair with Yvette cooled down. One night, when Yvette unexpectedly visited Salim, he exploded in anger, resulting in physical violence. Yvette then left, leaving Salim feeling regretful. Metty attempted to persuade Salim to take a walk outside, but Salim declined. Yvette then called, expressing her desire to return and saying she should've given him a Valium to help him relax. This made Salim feel like she was truly acting as his wife. After an all-nighter, Salim had “an illumination” at dawn, understanding that life is about experiences, regardless of whether they're painful or joyful. He then visited Mahesh’s Bigburger restaurant for coffee, where Mahesh invited him for lunch the next day. Later, Zabeth appeared to do her shopping and told Salim that Ferdinand might become the new local commissioner. She was worried about this potential position putting him in danger from both the rebels and the President. As an example, she pointed at a newspaper photo of the President, showing his dominant presence and making others look insignificant. Zabeth shared that she had seen the President with a white man who she believed would attract any harm, leaving the President unscathed.
Salim's arrival in London prompts him to ponder over Indar's views on air travel easing his state of homelessness. His first impressions of Europe aren't what he had anticipated back in Africa, where his idea of the continent was influenced by the language and imported goods. His reality in London was far from this preconceived image. For Salim, London seemed "something shrunken and mean and forbidding." He saw individuals resembling him, desperately trying to sell their goods, appearing "imprisoned in their kiosks." This seemingly futile struggle resonated with Indar's repudiation of the concept of home. During his visit, Salim gets engaged to Kareisha, Nazruddin’s daughter. Kareisha's diverse global experiences shaped her adaptability and her father's recommendation to pursue pharmacy ensured she had a profitable skill. Salim often strolled down Gloucester Road, a predominantly Arab neighbourhood. Meanwhile, Nazruddin voiced his disapproval of the wealthy Arabs in London, who amassed riches by trading oil with Europe. Nazruddin speaks about his ill-fated year in Canada. He initially invested in an oil company, but was left with considerable debt due to the director's clandestine financial manipulations. Hoping for a safer venture, he purchased a cinema, only to be duped again. The previous owner stripped off the projection and heating systems before transferring the property. Desperate for better luck, Nazruddin relocated to London and invested in residential properties. He had high hopes due to the growing housing demand, but his venture failed as he purchased at the peak of a boom, which led to a significant drop in the property values. Unable to charge reasonable rents, he continued losing money as his tenants, primarily impoverished Arabs, defaulted on their rents. Despite feeling disenchanted with Europe and sensing his untimely arrival, Nazruddin maintained his positivity. As Salim drifted off to sleep in his hotel, he remembered his "illumination" and conjured images of a world filled with men busy in vain. This evoked a feeling of "indifference and irresponsibility" in him, around the same time he proposed to Kareisha. Towards the end of his stay, Kareisha shared news of Indar’s recent misfortune.
After spending time in London, Salim arrived in the capital of an unnamed African country, finding it disappointing and "flimsy". His journey from the airport was marked by billboards featuring the President and his sayings, a sign of the leader's desperation to compete with European counterparts. He observed the city's contrasting state - decaying areas littered with rubbish juxtaposed with new construction projects. The next day, Salim had to bribe his way to board the return flight to his town. Unexpectedly, he was detained by a security officer but was later released by a senior official, annoyed by the delayed flight. The flight was interrupted midway and the plane was diverted for presidential service. During this unexpected delay, Salim reflected on the river's complexity and the timeless life of villages along its stretch. Once the plane arrived, they were transported to their final destination. On arrival, Salim was met with a cold reception from Metty, who was surprised at his return. Metty revealed that their shop had been taken over by the government and given to a local named Théotime, as part of the President's nationalization policy. When Salim visited his shop, everything was untouched, except for his desk that had been shifted to the storeroom. His personal photos were replaced with comic books. Théotime, when he arrived, was polite and reassured Salim that he would continue to manage the shop with a fair wage. Later, Salim discovered that Mahesh's restaurant was running as usual under an all-African company. This revelation added to his dismay, making him realize he had missed his chance to leave.
As Théotime felt more secure about retaining the shop, he began behaving boldly and becoming increasingly demanding. He started having female visitors in the storeroom and requested Salim to drive him around town. Despite running the shop, Théotime felt inadequate due to his lack of experience, causing tension. Salim realized that Théotime sought the prestige of being in charge without the requisite experience. Notwithstanding, Salim stayed determined to achieve his goal, while Metty despised Théotime for assigning him endless menial jobs. When Salim confronted Théotime about his unfair treatment of Metty, Théotime merely reinforced his authority. Metty pleaded with Salim for money to leave, but Salim reassured him that these tough times wouldn’t last. One Friday, Salim returned home to find policemen digging up his hidden ivory and gold stash, tipped off by Metty. As Salim tried to inform Mahesh, an officer disrupted him and attempted to extort an exorbitant bribe. When Salim declined, he was arrested. Seeing the words Discipline Avant Tout (“Discipline Above All”) on the police station wall, Salim felt mocked. He felt a growing rage as things seemed to be spiraling out of control. Salim woke up the next day in a jail filled with young males who he suspected were victims of the Liberation Army's kidnappings. The guards forced the prisoners to recite President-praising poems in anticipation of the President's visit for an execution. Come Monday, Salim was brought to the commissioner who was interested in his case. To his surprise, the commissioner was Ferdinand. Surrounded by oversized photos of the President, Ferdinand came across as small and bland. Ferdinand shared his disillusionment with the political condition, his education, and career. He advised Salim to escape the town via the steamer.