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Five sketches of freedom, alienation and culture shock
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.