BOOK REVIEW : In a Free State: V.S. Naipaul

In a Free State is a sequence of five works, two short stories (the prologue and the epilogue), two forty page novellas and a one hundred and forty page short novel — linked by a common theme of individuals being culturally lost. Naipaul known for his literary caricatures of his homeland Trinidad instead chose to weave a masterful and stylishly rendered narrative of emigration, dislocation, and dread, accompanied by four supporting narratives.

In a Free State is a sequence of five works, two short stories (the prologue and the epilogue), two forty page novellas and a one hundred and forty page short novel — linked by a common theme of individuals being culturally lost.

Naipaul known for his literary caricatures of his homeland Trinidad instead chose to weave a masterful and stylishly rendered narrative of emigration, dislocation, and dread, accompanied by four supporting narratives.

The main story is set in an East African country just after independence. The King, although liked by the Colonials, is weak, and is on the run while the President is poised to take absolute power.

The level of violence in urban centers of the country is rising and there are rumours of violence in the countryside. There is mention of the Asian community being “deported”.

The story reeks of Uganda in the Obote and later Amin era, where Naipual spent sometime as a lecturer in Makerere University and eventually traveled up to Congo, although the scenery looks a bit like Rwanda and perhaps the tribal violence at the end of the story is a bit too similar to the 1994 genocide.

At a time when the crisis is coming to a head, two white English civilians, a civil servant and his woman passenger, are returning to the safety of their compound along a road that is far from safe.

An old English colonel, a leftover from the past, who runs a cheap hotel, humiliates his cook before his guests--an act that is sure to bring reprisals.

The young driver, sympathetic to the aim of the new state, exhibits the usual white man’s arrogance as soon as his vehicle suffers minor damage.

The servants of the independent regime, having stored up their wrath, show the same savagery to the travelers as was once shown them.

All the reactions are senseless. They are responses to fear, to previous hurts, to the absence of charity. It is ironic that the couple in the car hastens to the compound for safety, though in a fundamental sense there can be no safety there either

Naipaul’s use of multiple stories helps him present a more balanced perspective than a straightforward novel would have allowed, the subject is one he has made his own, and his prose is up to its usual high standard.

There can have been little surprise when In a Free State won the 1971 Booker Prize.

In “Tell Me Who to Kill,” a young man form the Caribbean goes to London to support his brother in his studies.

He denies and degrades himself in various ways; he takes two jobs to accumulate money faster; he gets grandiose notions of owning his own business though he knows nothing about running it. Vanity is the spur in all this.

His brother is no student and isn’t capable of being one. But no one faces up to the truth. At the end, tricked by his brother, his money gone, his energy drained, his loss complete, full of hate he looks around for revenge: “Tell me who to kill.”

One out of Many concerns a rural West Indian family, a set of cousins, one of whom being in a better situation manages to humiliate the narrator.

The richer family has a son who goes to Canada and is destined to do well, while the others can expect nothing.

The younger brother of the second family then sets out for England to study engineering, while his elder brother does all he can to support him.

Eventually the elder brother follows him to England with the aim of helping him further. He works all hours in demeaning jobs to keep him, but eventually makes enough money to set up his own business.

However he discovers that the brother, despite appearances is doing no studying at all, while his restaurant is frequented by yobs.

The narrator, in a fit of rage, murders one of these yobs, who is in fact a friend of his brother. The story ends when he attends his brother’s wedding, with a prison guard for company.

Ends

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