The last thing I expected this morning was to get caught up in V.S. Naipaul's truly excellent In a Free State. I woke up early, as I usually do, crawled out of bed, grabbed my book and cuddled up under the duvet on the couch. My RRHB slept. I read. He slept. I read more. He woke up. I crawled back into bed, fell asleep for a bit, and then finished the book. What a perfect lazy day before the craziness of real life picks up again the moment the alarm goes off tomorrow morning.
The last Naipaul book I read was A House for Mr. Biswas way back in second year university. I was captivated but that never brought be back to Naipaul. My post-colonial reading in later years turned back to Canadian, I left university, did my M.A., and never picked up another of his books. Another of the surprises that I found on my shelf, I must have ordered this book back when 1001 Books came out. In a Free State was first published in 1971 and it won the Booker that year. Bookended by two diary-like travel journals, the collection contains two short stories and a novella, from which it takes its title.
The first story, "One Out of Many," follows a servant brought to Washington from Bombay. One day he steps away from his employer, leaves everything behind in the cupboard where he was sleeping, and becomes an illegal immigrant with an under the table job at a local restaurant owned by a fellow countryman. The story explores themes of alienation as Santosh makes his way in the United States, and slowly he discovers that he'll need to leave almost 100% of his old life behind to survive.
This idea, of the cost of freedom and the impact of the realities of immigration, is carried forth into the second story, "Tell Me Who to Kill." Leaving everything he knows behind, the narrator picks up and heads to London with the intention of giving his brother a better life, a life of studies, so he too can become "something." He works hard, saves his money, and then as so many stories go, makes a bad decision that ruins everything. Told through flashbacks as he takes the journey to his brother's wedding, the story becomes alive through his rich dialect, the obvious affection he feels for his brother, regardless of how he disappoints him, and the necessity of change when faced with adversity. It's a crushing and heartbreaking story.
"In a Free State" inverts the situation. Here a white, homosexual man has come to Africa to serve the government,under ideals of serving for the greater good. Away from the safe collective where he lives, Bobby attends a seminar and then must make his way back during a time of political upheaval. His passenger, the wife of a British journalist named Linda, makes pleasant enough conversation to begin with, but it soon becomes obvious she isn't happy either on the journey or in Africa. As their trip becomes even more arduous (they miss their curfew and are forced to stay at a ramshackle colonial resort), the polite nature of their relationship disintegrates. Armed with a sense of misapprehended colonial idealism, Bobby soon finds himself in all different kinds of trouble, some of his own making and much as a result of the political situations, and it's damning. Like in the first two stories, Naipaul explores themes of alienation and separation, of family and work, of place and displacement.
I couldn't put this book down. It's a book I'd love to study. A book that reminds you how words can sever a problem from its root, pull it apart and set it down in a way that makes you see things more clearly, even if in the end, for all three protagonists, little changes despite how hard the world presses up against them to force their currents in a new direction.
READING CHALLENGES: In a Free State is on the 1001 Books list, and so I'll cross it off there. But Naipaul was born in Trinidad, so I'll count this book on my Around the World in 52 Books list as well. It's actually a perfect book for that challenge. The landscapes, from the unknown African country that's the setting for the novella to Egypt, from London and Washington as seen through the eyes of those who settle and are not born there, there's an interesting sense of place that grounds the entire collection.
COMPS AND OBSERVATIONS: I couldn't help but think of Blood Diamond when I was reading "In a Free State," not because the stories are at all similar (it's a terribly mediocre film in the end), but because when Bobby speaks to an African man in the book, he uses that patois that Leo uses at the beginning of the film: "Who your boss-man? Who?" As Naipaul describes the country as it slips from colonial to post-colonial rule, I kept hearing, "T.I.A. This is Africa, right?" from that scene at the bar. In terms of comps, for much of the story, I kept thinking of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," despite the fact that it's obvious that Bobby and Linda are not at all lovers, their conversations have that same read-between-the-lines feel to them and the dialogue is excellent.
WHAT'S UP NEXT: I picked up Amanda Boyden's Babylon Rolling while my RRHB was using the computer. Fingers crossed I'll finish it tonight, which means I'll have managed to finish 7 books while I've been off for vacation. Not bad indeed!