Nominally a novel, but actually more like a collection of short stories, In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul is thus a little difficult to review. Should I focus on the novella, from which the book gets its title, or should I deal equally with all five narratives, and attempt to draw out the shared themes that give the book its coherence? I’ll try to do a little of both, the latter first.
In a Free State is, essentially, about experiences of being out of place. In this sense, it reminded me of Mary Douglas’ conception of matter out of place from her essay “Purity and Danger.” The stories 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. The presence of an English tramp on a Greek ferry causes uproar, an Indian servant tries to come to terms with his new life in Washington D.C., a South Asian West Indian immigrant in London reflects on the ruins of his life, 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, and finally, an Asian businessman travelling through Milan and Cairo reflects on cruelty and empire. I liked some of the stories a lot more than others. Some made for uncomfortable reading.
However, the main story, In a Free State, is brilliant. 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. At one point Bobby says that “Africa saved his life,” while Linda gives the impression that Africa ruined hers. But, though Linda is open about her prejudices, we’re meant, I think, to respect her more than Bobby, who is possessed of the same prejudices but who hides them under a thin layer of patronizing tolerance.
In the end, then, I couldn’t really say I that enjoyed the book. It was brilliantly written, provocative, but depressing, and I’m not sure that I agree with the central theme, which seemed to be the impossibility of being, in the full sense of the world, in a new place. That’s entirely too close to a Herderian argument about the inextricable connection of culture, place, and identity for my liking.