on 5 February 2003
The five stories that make up IAFS travel from international waters, America, India, Britain, The West Indies, unnamed Africa to Egypt. If Naipaul’s scope of geography is great then his sense of linking different people in different places together is even greater. Even though the book is made up from different stories that bear no relation to each other they all have a link in their main characters seeing another country and culture as a stranger as they travel from home.
The travel log of a traveller making his way to Egypt sandwiches the middle three stories. These two pieces are the least impressive of the books contents but set the scene for writings on displacement and cultural interaction. Particularly the observations of some Chinese communists at the end of the story highlight the theme of freedom Naipaul is illustrating through out the book- effectively the Chinese try to offer poor Egyptians freedom in the form of Marxism and this remains the most generous proposal during all the stories.
The second story (One Out Of Many) follows an Indian immigrant, Santoosh, in Washington DC who’s financial luck improves in the USA but at the cost to his self-identity and free choice. Santoosh is possibly the most sympathetic character throughout IAFS and his plight brings home to the reader how hard it can be, socially, for a person arriving in a new culture.
The middle piece (Tell Me Who To Kill) shows how circumstances of racism, unfairness and unfulfilled dreams can bring out the anger and disappointment in someone. The unnamed narrator of this story leaves his home in the West Indies to head for London where his brother is supposed to be studying. The circumstances of this story reflect Naipaul’s own life more than the other pieces living, as he did, in Trinidad until going to study at University in England. The sense of injustice and lack of liberty is strongest in this piece and the slow movement towards violence is saddening.
Much of the book is taken up with the next story, its namesake, In A Free State- about two English settlers in an unnamed African state during a car trip that lasts two days. The atmosphere of tension, colonial decay and tribal conflict is powerful in Naipaul’s writing but at the same time the characters of Linda and Bobby are well developed and balanced. Their views- some prejudiced, some liberal and some confused show the workings of white mentality at the very end of colonial influence.
Naipual, in IAFS, shows again his mastery at getting behind characters from all walks of life and corners of the globe. It is this talent that brings a meaningful study of alienation, freedom and West-East relations to near perfection. IAFS is a rare thing in literature- it makes you think, feel and want to stand up and take action. One of the most worthy Booker Prize winners.
on 9 July 2005
This won the Booker in the early 1970s, but I would say that its status as a novel is questionable. 'In a Free State' consists of a central narrative about two people on a desperate road trip through an African country in the throes of revolution, framed by short story fragments on the same theme - displacement - at the beginning and the end.
The overall effect on the reader of this collection of stories concerning people struggling to feel at home in foreign lands is powerful, and the prose is elegant and carefully pared down, but still descriptive enough to be evocative of the settings(America, London, Africa, Egypt).
Recommended, but in no way uplifting.
on 5 January 2009
The overarching theme in V. S. Naipaul¡¦s novels is displacement - usually as a result of migration. By telling three stories, Naipaul weaves an exquisite tale on the subject of "fitting in" in a non-native culture. The three stories are respectively:
- An Indian servant who moves from Bombay to Washington D.C. with his diplomat master
- British expatriate workers who have moved to Africa in search of personal redemption (or so we are made to believe)
- A West Indian student and his brother, who move to London
The Indian servant, who seemed to be content with his lot in life (being a servant to a 'superior') moves to Washington D.C. While in D.C., his acquaintance with 'hubshi' (African Americans) challenges his concept of self and his place in the world. The scales eventually fall from the servant¡¦s eyes and he eventually leaves his master to marry a hubshi. Yes, our servant becomes a US citizen, achieving his American dream but still feels a sense of loss and emptiness.
The novel moves to a small, newly-independent African country sometime in the 1960's. Two British expats, Bobby and Linda, are taking a drive to the 'white' compound on the other side of the country. As they drive and chatter, they unveil their motivations for coming to Africa and their perceptions of their place in it. Our expats are anything but enlightened. Indeed, they are mass of contradictions: for example, they betray their hopes of redemption while in Africa and yet display crass racial prejudice against the Africans.
The exchanges between Bobby and Linda are simply exquisite. I was immediately transported to the backseat of their car on that dirt road in Africa. The Africa of their dreams is shattering around them. The newly independent state is falling apart. Political rivalry between the newly elected President and the local king reaches a head when the king is assassinated by the President's men. Though the novel does not explicitly state it, hell - ethnic cleansing and internecine violence - will soon be let loose on this small country.
In a Free State is a deeply unsettling yet poignant reminder of the challenges of migration and fitting in. Once it grips you the novel does not let go. Instead, it gnaws deeper and deeper and leaves a funny but strangely satisfying taste in the mouth. After reading Naipaul¡¦s Half a Life I thought that I had seen it all. Naipaul is an undisputed master of the English language; his control of the language is Mephistophelian. I felt like an fly caught in Naipaul¡¦s web; too stupid to avoid the web in the first place yet enchanted by the artistry of its design. In a Free State deserves 4 stars.
on 4 September 2003
In a Free State is one of the great cultural fiction books of the last century, combining fictious characters in real life cultures. The supporting narratives along with the main novel make an excellent thought-provoking read about the differences in culture across the globe, the changes that may seem so subtle for an outsider escalated to great fears by the characters living in those situations.
The first narrative is a brief account of an Indian servant, Santosh, who travels from Bombay to Washington, with his employer. The tale written in first person portrays the struggles that Santosh faces, as he has left his homeland and is placed in a alien culture, he can not understand. The second narrative, Tell Me who to Kill, describes the search of another man pulled between two cultures, as he travels to London to help his brother.
The main novel, is the essence of cultural conflict, set in the war torn continent of Africa, and joins two English characters, working for the government, as they travel along the roads of the state towards the compound. The country has split in two, and tribal conflict has taken over. While the two english characters, Bobby and Linda remain somewhat neutral, in an effort to bring peace, their opposing views make interested conversations on their journey, coupled with numerous incidents along the way, the situation of the country begins to unfold.
An insightful, though sometimes brutal look at the changes in culture and effects of boundaries on continents, countries, tribes, and individual characters. A thoroughly readable book, by the excellent V.S. Naipul whose effortless writing conjures such a real atmosphere.
In V.S. Naipaul's novel all main characters are looking and longing for (a little) freedom: the emigrants, the colonists, the tourists and the universal freedom seeker, the tramp (`I think of myself as a citizen of the world.')
But are they finding freedom, living in freedom, creating freedom?
The tourists are bored and indifferent, even when, as a tourist show, Egyptian children are whipped while fighting for food (their freedom) thrown to them by cynical foreign bystanders.
The tramp is despised for his deviant behavior, his smell and ragged clothes. The other passengers on a boat make a laughing stock of him.
For the colonists (`You came for the freedom, though.'), the settler grandeur is lost. There is only hate (`I hated this place from the first day, because I felt I had no right to be among those people.') or brutal force (`Every night you know they're beating someone to death').
The emigrant, the Indian cook who follows his master to the `land of freedom', sums it all up: `All that freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a number of years. Then it will be over.'
So, it's only an illusion. `Everybody just lies and lies and lies.'
Although `we all come from the same pot', we encounter everywhere hate, jealousy, resentment, racism, stupidity (`It is the poor who always want to keep down the poor.'), prejudice (`They think that because we are a poor country, we are all the same.') and resignation (`Some people get left behind so far they don't know and stop caring.')
Let's face the truth, for `the only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves.'
Alternating humor, sarcasm and cynicism, V.S. Naipaul tried to open our eyes on the world stage, our way of life and our cynical and irresponsible behavior in the face of `when it will be over'.
A great book by a great writer. Highly recommended.
on 12 June 2001
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. All are about individuals stranded in foreign countries and confronted by alien cultures: in "One out of Many" an Indian servant is almost accidentally transported to Washington, where he finds a niche for himself but remains profoundly alienated from the world around him; "Tell Me Who to Kill" is the tragic story of a West Indian who moves to London; the novel "In a Free State" is about expatriate English civil servants in a recently independent African state torn by civil war; and the epilogue and prologue present the more detached view of an experienced traveller writing in his journal. In a Free State is one of the best works of fiction I have read that deals with the subject of cultural incommensurability and the broken symmetry of colonial relationships. Naipaul's use of multiple stories helps him present a more balanced perspective than a straightforward novel would have allowed, and the subject is one he is at home with. His prose is up to its usual high standard, and there can have been little surprise when In a Free State won the 1971 Booker Prize.
Great to see it being republished
I'm always suspicious of any book which needs to declare itself 'a novel' on the front cover, since it normally indicates that the description is up for debate. In this case, the suspicions were well founded. 'In A Free State' is less a novel than a collection of five unrelated short stories of erratic length and style.
Still, the first two were promising - the first being in the style of a journal entry, the second a narrative by an Indian manservant newly arrived in New York. They were beautifully written and, particularly the latter, full of insights.
Things went downhill with the latter three stories. The story about the West Indian man in London was written in an intensely irritating style and was so utterly confusing I almost lost the will to read altogether. But at least it wasn't very long.
The fourth story is the longest, divided into chapters, centered on two British expats making a car journey in an unnamed African country riven with civil war. It is written in mind-blowingly minute detail, which is tedious to read. The characters are dull and I couldn't summon any interest in them. I found myself skipping through the last few chapters in desperation to finish. By the time I reached the final 'story' I had lost the will, and skimmed through it.
on 21 May 2014
The copy I read was a printing of the original book which won the 1971 Booker Prize. The author subsequently agreed with the publisher to allow the central African novella to be published on its own, without the accompnaying short stories. He had come to believe that they distracted somewhat from the central tale. I believe he might have a point. Certainly the other four supporting tales were of variable quality and none were as strong as the central story of a road trip through an African state during violent regime change. The reality of faded colonialism is poignantly portrayed in the fading grandeur of the Colonel's hotel, and the myth of freedom is challenged in the frustrated sexual desires of the two main protagonists. Freedom, and its limitations are the linked themes throughout all five tales, and I do think the author communicates more by telling the five stories rather than just the one. But overall it didn't quite spark into life. I enjoyed this book, but I didn't love it. I appreciated it, but I wasn't inspired by it.
THis collection is one of Naipaul's darkest. While I dutifully plowed through it, I was depressed by the emptiness and psycholigical terror of just about every story. THe Novella of the title is a sad journey in Africa made by two residents of a roped-off European area, through the background of appalling civil war that eventually touches them. They are mediocrities with nowhere else to go, one the aging wife of a has-been journalist, the other a man who exploits poverty-stricken male prostitutes. THe other stories are similarly bleak. One tells of a beaten-down man who is trying to help his brother as they struggle to emigrate to England. Another recounts the misadventures of an Indian man who moves to Washington, DC and marries an American black woman by default.
It is a strange collection of stories and travel, a testament to despair and disorderly life. Naipaul's other books are better and have far more humor.
on 20 April 2007
Some books you read, and the images they create stay with you for a very long time. I first read this book years ago and it certainly had that effect on me, and I can vividly recollect the three very different worlds the book describes in its short stories that come together to create an overwhelming and bleak view of what it is to be an immigrant, whether that's as a white man in Africa, or an Asian in the West. The subtlety and power of the writing blows into the weeds the stack of recent 'immigrant' novels exploring similar themes (Brick Lane, Inheritance of Loss, et al) and quite simply, for me, this is my favourite novel. Can't say more than that!