The Booker Prize

Reading the Booker Prize winners (4): In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul

Title: In a Free State

Author: V.S. Naipaul

Genre: Fiction

Year: 1971

A nameless traveller who faces human cruelty on his way to Egypt; an Indian immigrant searching for freedom in Washington; a West Indian man sacrificing everything for his little brother; and two English people travelling through an unnamed African country on the cusp of revolution.

In a Free State is a cynic exploration of the meaning of freedom, belonging, alienation, and the prize of colonialism.

A closer look

So here we are again, with the fourth entry in this list. Will I ever see the end of it? Well, hopefully at some point in the next couple of years. Maybe.

I am not entirely sure if the Booker prize was won for the whole collection or only for the titular story, but as the edition I read contained all of them, well, why not spend a little time on each story? I promise I’ll keep it short.

The book is framed by a prologue and an epilogue, possibly from the same perspective, following an unnamed protagonist travelling to Egypt and witnessing the cruelty of the “civilised people” toward the strangers and the natives. In the prologue, the people’s mocking is directed toward an English tramp, while in the epilogue, a group of Italian tourists throw sandwiches at Egyptian children, while a man lashes with a whip at those who try to grab the food.
A sense of indignation and shame is perceived by the protagonist at the view; and in the epilogue he intervenes to stop the spectacle that had been entertaining the tourists so much.

The first proper story of the collection is titled One Out of Many and narrates the story of Santosh, an Indian cook from Bombay, who travels to Washington with his employer. While he was perfectly content with his life in India, the reassignment of his employer means that his quiet life is at an end, and desperate not to lose what little he has, he implores him to bring him along.
The impact with the new reality of life outside of India is shocking from the beginning; already during the plane journey, Santosh realises just how much he doesn’t belong where he is going: the clothes he wears, his baggage, everything that has always felt normal to him now looks out of place and earns him disapproving glances from the people around him.

The situation doesn’t improve with their arrival in Washington; Santosh feels out of place, and he’s scared by all the things he doesn’t understand. He starts losing his identity, and tries to escape this feeling by isolating first, then running away. Living as an illegal immigrant, for the first time he feels like his own person, someone separate from his employer. Slowly, though, he begins to understand that freedom is an illusion, and even the illusion comes with a cost: by the end of the story, he knows he will always be an outsider, and his only option is to abandon everything he was before, to lose himself in this culture so alien to him, and keep going through life almost mechanically.

The next story is called Tell Me Who to Kill and it’s the hardest one to read, at least for me. Not so much for the content itself, but the author decides to try something different with this protagonist: he only speaks pidgin, and so the way the story is told already presents a challenge in the language; but it’s also told with jumps from present to past and vice versa, making the whole thing even harder to follow.
Not that the style isn’t clear enough; Naipaul clearly knows what he’s doing with his words, but it takes a little more focus to read this story and not lose a passage or two.

In this story, the protagonist already feels as an outsider in his own family; he doesn’t understand his father’s contentedness with the poor life they live, and regrets the fact that he hasn’t been permitted to continue his studies. This is what prompts him to decide that his younger brother, Dayo, deserves all of his help in the pursuit of a better future. He helps him get on a ship to England to pursue his studies in aeronautical engineering, and then even follows him in the country to keep on supporting him. Working hard to save money, then losing almost everything after an investment gone wrong, he slowly comes to realise that Dayo has been taking advantage of his love and support; but even as hate consumes him, he can’t help but love him.

The protagonist of this story is another tragic figure; not only because all of his effort adds up to nothing in the end, but because, once again, there’s no way he can feel at home in this new place. As much as he works like everyone else, and acts like everyone else, he’s still always an outsider. He will never feel really at home in this country, and this country will never really accept him for what he is. And even as he watches his brother getting married to an English woman, his only thought is that he doesn’t belong with those people.

The last story of the collection, In a Free State, is the longest of the three and the one that gives the title to the book.
It follows the road trip of Bobby and Linda, two English people, travelling from the capital of an unnamed African country to the compound where they live, while an atmosphere of unrest surrounds them.

While it begins as a simple road trip, along the way we come to know the characters better. Linda is a white woman disillusioned with Africa, who thinks the natives are savages and only play at being civilised. Bobby is a gay government employee who came to Africa, attracted to black boys and the idea of freedom attached to a new country. Even though he insists on defending the natives when he speaks to other white people, he’s quick to anger and treats them horribly when they do not meet his expectations.
The relationship they develop during the trip is emblematic of their own duality; at times feeling like friend, at times trying to hurt each other with their words.

Meanwhile trouble stirs around them, as the president’s men search for the runaway king. The closer the protagonists get to the compound they’re heading toward, the worse it gets. The sense of danger is palpable; maybe it’s just the way the characters experience it, but at times it feels like everyone around is out to get them one way or another. Even once they finally get to the compound, it’s clear that the sense of safety they feel is only an illusion. The country is revolting, shaking free from the grasp of colonialism, and sooner or later being white will not be enough to keep people safe.

If I had to describe this book in a single word it would be alienation.
The characters of each and every story feel out of place. Sometimes they admit it freely -like Santosh in the first story, or the protagonist of the second- other times its clear to the reader but the characters lie to themselves. Naipaul explores the feeling of the immigrant, the foreigner, the person who wants to fit in and realises it’s never possible.

I’m not a huge fan of short, realistic fiction, especially when it is as pessimistic and cynical as these stories are, and even less when the subject doesn’t interest me that much; but I have to give the author some merit. Naipaul’s prose is excellent; with a few words he manages to perfectly convey images, feelings and atmosphere, and even though I didn’t love the stories, I did enjoy his writing style. Maybe I should try a longer novel by him and see if that works better for me.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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