Sunday, April 15, 2012

Places Where They Don't Belong

In a Free State
In a Free State 

"All at once the lilies lost their brightness; it grew dark below the trees; the swamped garden was silent.  The stream raged on.  On the other bank tree trunks were black in the gloom; leaves and branches hung low.  The wood of a fairy tale, far from home: what was so recently man-made, after the forests had been cut down and the forest-dwellers flushed out and dismissed, what had perhaps been intended only as an effect of art in a landscape made secure, had become natural.  It spoke of the absence of men, danger." (p 128)

Nominally a novel, but actually more like a collection of short stories, In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul is in this way different than other works of Naipaul that I have read. But in other ways it is similar and as a result it is as good as the others I have read. This is because all the five stories are linked thematically and they share Naipaul's beautiful prose style.
In a Free State includes stories that are all about people who find themselves in places where they feel, or are made to feel, that they don’t belong; the stories are about boundaries, purity, pollution, incommensurability and just plain strangeness. In the opening prologue, the presence of an English tramp on a Greek ferry causes uproar. The second story, my favorite, tells of an Indian servant who tries to adjust to a new life in Washington D.C. Next, in a story that demonstrated a striking voice with a melancholy that I found disturbing, a South Asian West Indian immigrant in London reflects on the ruins of his life. His relationship with boy he is helping deteriorates as he slowly realizes the failure of the boy to live up to his naive ideal.
The titular novella narrates the experience of two white Britons in Uganda drive from the capital to their compound in the south as post-independence upheaval around them throws their presence in the country into relief. In the epilogue an Asian businessman travelling through Milan and Cairo reflects on cruelty and empire.
While I found interesting aspects to all the shorter stories, the main story, In a Free State, clearly stands out among the lot. While neither of the two main characters are appealing, the contrast between the self-deluding Bobby, who claims to have some sort of authentic connection with “Africa,” and the cynical, weary Linda is very effective. They wear their prejudices on their sleeves, so to speak, and only differ in tone and personality. More effective for me was the setting and the use of description to maintain a tension that suggested (not unlike a Hitchcock thriller) the presence of horror just around the bend. Whether you agree with the view represented in these stories about the difficulty of adjusting your being to a new place and a different culture you can, through the graceful prose style of V. S. Naipaul, enjoy the book.

In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul. Vintage Books, 2002 (1971)

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