In A Free State – V.S.Naipaul

Book #356

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily (first published 2010)


This is the 1971 Booker Prize winner by V.S.Naipaul, who sounds like quite an interesting character in his own right.

Having visited his Wikipedia entry, I now have a better understanding of this work.  I was a bit perplexed by it at the beginning, but at least two of the five sections make a great deal more sense.

Okay, let me begin at the beginning.

This is a book in five parts.  There are three separate stories bookended by two, supposed entries from the author’s own journals, although more likely to be in the voice of a narrator.  I found the bookends odd.  The first “journal entry” sets the tone for the next two stories, One Out of Many and Tell Me Who To Kill.   The narrator is travelling on a ship to Egypt and relates the story of the short voyage, in which a very odd passenger is noted and eventually tormented by his three room-mates.
If you are an aspiring writer who wishes to learn the skill of writing menace then you can find no better example than this volume.  I cannot give Naipaul enough praise for the ability to convey menaces and fear in the written form.

Following on from the initial journal entry is One Out of Many which conveys the story of an Indian manservant brought to the United States and Washington D.C. by his employer – a minor government official. The fear of differences, cultural and societal are touched on in this story.  There are some funny moments, when viewed as an outsider, but there is the ever present sense of fear, menace and just waiting for the shoe to drop.  The ending of the story is not what I expected at all, and while unconventional it was not wholly satisfying either.  It almost left me with more questions than answers about the changes in the lead character’s inner life. 

The second story is nothing but menace, fear and ultimately sadness.
It is the tale of two brothers from the Caribbean and their experience living in England.  The older brother is the narrator of the story, telling it in slices of flashback mixed with current events.   In current time he is travelling to his younger brother’s wedding.  He is accompanied on this journey by a man who’s relationship to the narrator is never openly acknowledged or clearly expressed.  He is named, and discussed in small snippets but you know that there is something amiss with the relationship.
In flashback you are taken through the emotional ups and downs of a very poor family’s relationship with their “better off” cousins, and then on to a poor, illiterate immigrant’s experience in England.  And, as a West Indian in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this clearly would not have been a positive one.
Many aspects of this story are pitiful, sad, poignant and downright annoying.  But, once again, the overarching sensation while reading is fear, menace and waiting for the axe to fall.  I was too dim to make the connection at the time of reading the story, so the ending was vaguely unsatisfactory.  It makes much more sense to me now, once I connected the narrator to his travelling companion in the manner the author intended.

The third story, and the namesake of the book, In A Free State is set in some anonymous African country after the colonial power has gone.  This story went on and on and on and on, with seemingly no real point.  Perhaps I missed it.  Perhaps I need to be an African to understand it.  As bad as I found reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible I would still find her discussion of post-colonial Africa and the mess that was made there far more understandable and palatable than this rather vague story.
The only “free” state that seems under discussion here is that of whose bed you prefer, and why that is so much easier to do in an African expatriate community.  The world around the main character here seems barely trimming on his lifestyle and that of his travelling companion.  Perhaps I’m of the wrong generation, wrong upbringing, or just plain dim.  I didn’t get it.  I didn’t get the point.  I didn’t even really enjoy the writing of this piece.  The previous two were much more evocative and created great mood, even though I have no connection to India or the West Indies either.

Frankly on the back of In A Free State, I’m damned if I know how this got a Booker.  On the back of the first two – I do get it.  Great writing, taking you in to the characters and their inner lives and thoughts, even so far as to draw you into their fears.  The rest of it…  uh, no.  Not a prizewinner from where I sit.

If you’ve read it, I’d love to know what you thought about it.  What did I miss in my understanding of the writer’s objectives?

So this one I’d have to call a half-and-half.  Half great stuff, half “what the??”
Tackle it if you dare.

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One thought on “In A Free State – V.S.Naipaul

  1. Fofo August 6, 2016 / 11:35 am

    The third section of In a Free State is not just a about bunch of people traveling and talking none sense in Africa. Naipaul is making a serious point of how Africa is changed culturally after the colonial power departured. Also, the people are changed, agriculture has no value, native religion is not there. There ia no political stability anywhere in Africa. Africa is surrounded with european items and the whole contenent is messed up and the rich and powerful people are selfishly taking advantages of evrything. The impact of the imperialism on the whole africa is still visible because they have changed Africa’s shape, people, culture, spiritual beliefs and so on. As linda says “you wouldn’t belive you’re in Africa, it is so much like England”.

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