The first edition of A Bend in the River, published in 1979
A Bend in the River starts in the childhood of Salim, our narrator. He is an African of Indian origin, living on Africa’s east coast – except this part of the continent can’t really be described as Africa:
“AFRICA WAS MY HOME, had been the home of my family for centuries. But we came from the east coast, and that made the difference. The coast was not truly African. It was an Arab-Indian-Persian-Portuguese place, and we who lived there were really people of the Indian Ocean.”
When civil unrest threatens, Salim heads into the interior to take up a business opportunity offered by a family friend. This is a shop selling bits of everything in a town beside a river in an unnamed central African country. Salim’s town is at the heart of both country and continent, but – in an irony characteristic of the book – seems very much a marginalised place. Despite the town’s central location, in terms of the river it lies right at the end of navigation, as far up stream as a boat can reach. The east coast might be not truly African, but Salim’s town in the middle is not truly African either. It’s a peripheral place, with a turbulent population riven by all kinds of allegiances. This situation is reflected in the real world. Think of the great cities of America, for example, and you’ll see that the top two – New York and Los Angeles – are ports on the coast, where there is the greatest interchange with other places. America’s geographical centre is in rural Kansas, close to the town of Lebanon, with a population of just over 200.
Pondering on the book after I’d finished it, I thought about a line in a Lindisfarne song about another town by a river:
“The fog on the Tyne is all mine.”
There’s a passage in A Bend in the River involving river mist.
“In the darkness of river and forest you could be sure only of what you could see –and even on a moonlight night you couldn’t see much. When you made a noise –dipped a paddle in the water –you heard yourself as though you were another person. The river and the forest were like presences, and much more powerful than you. You felt unprotected, an intruder. In the daylight –though the colours could be very pale and ghostly, with the heat mist at times suggesting a colder climate –you could imagine the town being rebuilt and spreading.”
The town is little more than a fleeting daydream. People think they own the fog, but the fog belongs to no one – or it belongs to everyone if you wish to look at things from a warmer perspective. Admittedly, a warmer perspective is not very evident in A Bend in the River.
Perhaps a warmer perspective comes from the sense that finishing the book, people might not be so quick to differentiate insiders from outsiders, people who belong from those who don’t. With the centre in the same place as the periphery, with home presented as such a nebulous concept, we might ironically become more welcoming and tolerant.