In a Free State
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|Author||V. S. Naipaul|
In a Free State is a novel by V.S. Naipaul published in 1971. It won that year's Booker Prize. The plot consists of a framing narrative and three short stories; “One out of Many,” “Tell Me Who to Kill,” and the title story, “In a Free State.”. The work is symphonic, with different movements working towards an overriding theme. It is not too clearly spelled out what that theme is. However, there is an important aspect relating to the price of freedom, with analogies between the three situations.
The narrator is initially on a ferry to Egypt, and concludes many years later as a tourist in Egypt again.
The first tale concerns an Indian servant from Bombay who, having no real alternative at home, accompanies his master on a diplomatic mission to Washington, D.C.. The two Indians suffer abominably from the poor value of Indian currency.
The servant lives in almost a cupboard and inadvertently blows several weeks salary just buying a snack. However he gets to meet a restaurant proprietor who offers him an apparent fortune as a salary, so he absconds and works for him. Once he has his affairs in reasonable order, however, he starts to live in fear that his master will find him and order him back. He also learns that he is working illegally and liable to deportation.
The only way of resolving the situation is to marry a woman who had seduced him but she had avoided ever since out of shame for his behaviour.
The second story has an unreliable narrator. It concerns a rural West Indian family, a set of cousins, one of whom being in a better situation manages to humiliate the narrator. The richer family has a son who goes to Canada and is destined to do well, while the others can expect nothing.
The younger brother of the second family then sets out for England to study engineering, while his elder brother does all he can to support him. Eventually the elder brother follows him to England with the aim of helping him further. He works all hours in demeaning jobs to keep him, but eventually makes enough money to set up his own business. However he discovers that the brother, despite appearances is doing no studying at all, while his restaurant is frequented by yobs. The narrator, in a fit of rage, murders one of these yobs, who is in fact a friend of his brother. The story ends when he attends his brother's wedding, with a prison guard for company.
The story is set in an African Great Lakes state that has recently acquired independence. The King, although liked by the Colonials, is weak, and is on the run while the President is poised to take absolute power. The level of violence in urban centres of the country is rising and there are rumours of violence in the countryside. There is mention of the Asian community being "deported".
Bobby is an official who has been attending a conference in the capital city. He now heads back to the governmental Compound where he lives, and he has offered a lift to Linda, another colleague's wife. We learn early on that Bobby is homosexual. He is rebuffed by a young Zulu when he tries to pick him up at the Hotel bar. He soon discovers that Linda has plans of her own as they embark on the journey.
The relationship between the two is complex from the outset; it seems Bobby is intent on aggravating the initially calm Linda. His previous history of mental illness is explored. Things go from bad to worse when they put up at a Hotel, run by an old Colonel who can not adapt to the new conditions in the country. There, they have dinner, and they witness a scene between the Colonel and Peter, his servant, who he accuses of planning his murder. Furthermore, Bobby discovers that Linda was planning some extra-marital activity with a friend along the way, and he becomes furious and hostile.
The two reach their destination, but not before witnessing the site where the old King was recently murdered, a philosophical Muslim planning to move to Egypt and the beginnings of a genocidal wave of violence. Bobby is beaten by the army at a check point, where he and Linda experience first hand the growing violence.
The story follows the conventions of a road trip with the reader becoming aware, as do Bobby and Linda, of the situation and how serious it has become.
This book won the Booker Prize for 1971.
The Elected Member
|Booker Prize recipient