"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)
The novel 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 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 final story, “In a Free State,” is equally pessimistic. In it, Bobby and Linda share a car ride from the capital, in the northern part of the African country, to the so-called Southern Collectorate, where Bobby works and where Linda will rejoin her husband. Ethnic rivalries within the country make this journey perilous because the president, whose politically and militarily dominant people control the north, has set up roadblocks to apprehend the king, whose weaker people populate the south.
The basic conflict between the two characters concerns their attitude toward Africa: Bobby, a homosexual who suffered a nervous breakdown at Oxford, has emigrated to Africa and plans to make it his home. “My life is here,” he says. Linda has lived in the country for six years and considers it an exciting place for her and her husband to work, but she intends to go to South Africa, if it ever stops being “like a John Ford Western.” Her attitude suggests that Europeans can never be accepted in black African society. 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, 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.