Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 30, 2008

In a Free State, by V.S. Naipaul, Winner of the Booker Prize in 1971

in-a-free-stateIt’s hard to imagine what effect this book might have had when it won the Booker Prize in 1971.  The Booker was less well-known then, and it may not have had much impact on the reading public.  If a mass audience did know about it, what did they make of it, then, at the end of the Swinging Sixties, after decades of post-colonial independence movements and those endless famines in Africa?

It’s not just this book’s theme which might have intrigued the reader: the ambiguities of the exploiter and the exploited; the indifferent racism; the incipient violence; the political instability – all set in the vast beauty of Africa and its dust, dirt and disease.  It’s also the strange structure of the book.  It’s in five discrete parts, though it’s not a collection of short stories.  There’s the main story, ‘In A Free State’, preceded by ‘Tell Me Who To Kill’, in which an African goes to London to support his brother’s education.   He makes money but loses it in a failed business for which he has neither skills nor understanding of the rules governing health and safety, and resigns himself to a life so dislocated from friends, family and community that he can no longer even feel the rage he ought to feel.  As the title says, who can he kill to avenge himself for these losses?  Brother has exploited brother, he has been ripped off by the man who sold him a business he couldn’t run, and vandalism and violence is everywhere.  The situation into which he so naively ventured is too overwhelming, and he is powerless even to identify the acts perpetrated by both institutions and individuals that have ruined his life, much less exact revenge.

Preceding,’ Tell Me Who To Kill’ (yes, I know I’m doing this backwards!) there’s the achingly sad story ‘One of Many’.  An Indian houseboy from Bombay goes to America with his employer, taking the caste system and his shocking ignorance with him. There he is incomprehensibly lonely (somewhat like the wife, marooned in her flat, in The Kite Runner).  He misses the camaraderie of his fellow houseboys, with whom he used to sleep overnight on the streets back in Bombay.  In America he sleeps in a commodious cupboard, its exit concealed so that visitors aren’t aware of his circumstances, and he is paid so little that he doesn’t have enough even to go to the pictures as he used to, nor buy himself the clothes he needs to fit into city life.  His employer gets away with this, of course, because Santosh is an illegal immigrant, working without a Green Card.

On a walk to assuage his desolation, he meets Priya, a fellow Indian and restaurateur.  Priya offers him a job where he is paid more and has a whole room for himself.  Santosh defiles himself, however, when – against his religion and the rules of the caste system which imprisons him – he sleeps with a ‘hubshi‘ (a Hindustani term meaning negro i.e. an African-American).  This is a point of no return for Santosh, and he takes Priya’s advice to marry the woman to acquire a Green Card (even though he has a wife and children in the village back home).  He can do this, says Priya, because in America he is free to do what he likes, because nobody cares about him.

My strength  in this house is that I am a stranger.  I have closed my mind and heart to the English language, to newspapers and radio and television…I do not want to understand or learn any more.

I am a simple man who decided to act and see for himelf, and it is as though I have had several lives.  I do not wish to add to these…Someone scrawled …on the pavement outside my house: Soul Brother.  I understand the words; but I feel brother to what or to whom?  I was once part of the flow, never thinking of myself as a presence.  Then I looked in the mirror and decided to be free.  All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a number of years.  Then it will be over. (p61)

Santosh has never been free, and the dream of freedom in America is a sham.

All the characters in this book are expatriates.  In the main story, ‘In A Free State’  they are Whites in a un-named state in Africa.  The country is in the throes of a violent struggle between the King and the President, both of whom wish to rule the newly independent state.  Bobby, a civil servant  and Linda travel together by car back to the safety of their compound, but they don’t like each other and they quarrel frequently because of their differing post-colonial sensibilities.   Along the way, events are symbolic of both change and stability in power relations: the old Colonel, humiliated by his change of status and running the remnants of a once grand hotel, humiliates his cook;  Bobby vacillates between being sympathetic to the new regime and reverting to the usual white arrogance when the Africans irritate him.  At roadblocks they are sometimes waved through because they are neutral and White, but Bobby is savagely attacked at the last one because he refuses to hand over his watch to a soldier who considers it his right to have it, in recompense, presumably, for past injustices.   The compound, finally reached, is an oasis of cleanliness, order and safety, but there is a sense that it is doomed.

Like bookends at each end of these three stories is an ‘Egyptian Journal’.  The Prologue, ‘The Tramp at Pireaus’ tells how two Lebanese and a German ill-treat a shabby old tramp on the boat to Cairo, and the Epilogue,  ‘The Circus at Luxor’ tells how the writer  finally intervenes against the actions of an Egyptian ‘protecting the tourists’ from scavenging local children.  He cannot bear to see this man whipping the children when they come scrounging for scraps.  Most of the tourists ignore them as if they were not even there, but the Italians bait them, throwing food to lure them over.  The writer of the journal takes the whip from the security guard, and he submits – because really, nothing much has changed in post-colonial Egypt.  It seems as though Naipaul believes that man’s inhumanity to man knows no cultural or political bounds.  Those in power will always exploit those who are powerless.  Greed, vanity, stupidity, socio-economic status and racism rule everywhere, and the post colonial state is no Eden.

V.S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 ‘for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories’.

Author: V.S. Naipaul
Title: In a Free State
Publisher: André Deutsch, 1971 (First Edition)
Source: Personal Library

This book is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.


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