In a Free State, by V S Naipaul

Soon after my return from 5 years in Guyana in the early 1970s,
I submitted this piece as part of a bid to review books for the TLS or the TES.
In response I was invited to define the areas I would like to specialise in,
and foolishly uncertain which to suggest, delayed replying too long,
and let the opportunity slip…

In a Free State, by V S Naipaul.  
This novel takes the form of variations on a theme.  It is written in five sections: a prologue, three separate narratives, and an epilogue – and while these sections are unconnected in terms of plot or character, they are all consistent with the theme of the isolation and insularity of expatriates.

In the prologue we are given a glimpse of the victimisation of a tramp by a heterogeneous collection of people for the time being hardly more established than himself, since they are all passengers on a steamer.  However, they seem to find a unifying and stabilising force in tormenting someone demonstrably less rooted and conventional than themselves, even though their slimly-based solidarity is short-lived.  In this brief prologue Naipaul, without moralising or commenting except in the selection and sequencing of details and events, sketches some of the forces at work in the creation of exclusionist tendencies, and some of the pitiful, ineffectual responses open to the excluded.

In the first of the real stories of the novel, we encounter Santosh, an Indian servant thrust willingly but totally unprepared into the complexities and anomalies of life in Washington.  He has exchanged a life of subservience in which there was order and security, for one in which there is none.  His bewilderment at American “civilisation” allows us to see it deliciously afresh, and the first-person narrative style, with its suggestion of formality, is nicely evocative of both his foreignness and his reverence for order.

Initially less easily penetrable, as a narrative more complex in form, but perhaps for that reason promising greater depth on further reading, the second story centres on the dislocation, even derangement, in the mind of its narrator, a West Indian in England.  He is on his way to his brother’s wedding, and the loneliness that characterises his thoughts on the journey is periodically interrupted by nostalgia for the warmth and security of the island home he has left behind.  Other levels of memory also penetrate his thoughts, and we are gradually permitted to piece together the story of his unsatisfactory life in England, and that of the brother for whom he has sacrificed so much to so little purpose.  The narrative style here, with its close approximation to West Indian Creolese, serves a twofold purpose in that the proliferation of un-tensed or present tense verb forms compresses the time scale, blurring distinctions between past and present, while it brings his thought processes vividly to life.  The most arresting feature of his story, with its confused impression of violence, is several times hinted at in dream-like sequences, but remains obstinately obscure, as if the memory of the narrator is applying its own censorship, and as if Naipaul is respecting the narrative convention he has adopted.  This to me is both intriguing and tantalising, and yet it reminds me of some of Faulkner’s work, where the intellectual satisfaction to be derived from gleaning deeper and deeper insights into what appears at first utterly disjointed, is paralleled by an increasing aesthetic satisfaction in the intricacy of its construction.

The “Free State” of the title and of the third and most substantial piece of narrative in the novel, is an unnamed country in Africa, undergoing the identity problems of newly independent countries familiar to Mr Naipaul from his Trinidadian experience.  “In a Free State” concerns a jouney undertaken by two white expatriates of the higher civil servant class through unprotected country during civil war.  Bobby and Linda neither know nor like each other very much, and Naipaul’s restrained indication of the behaviour patterns they adopt for each other’s benefit is as wryly convincing as his portrayal of their largely shared uneasiness in relation to the Africans they brush up against.  That they should be together at all is a consequence both of the colonial ethos and of their shared isolation in the face of the impending political crisis, but having been brought together they are made, by a process of mutual provocation, to examine their own attitudes more harshly.  Naipaul allows this narrative an unhurried pace, and a slow, oppressive atmosphere of tension is built up and sustained through its nasty by fully credible climax.

In the epilogue Naipaul ironically confronts us with the spectacle of ourselves as tourists displaying characteristic insensitivity to the living culture of the countries whose ancient monuments we flock to reverence.  He attempts a fleeting world view into which some of the inconsistencies of groups and cultures might fit, and ends with a sombre reflection on the future of at least one such group in Sinai.

In the novel as a whole, Naipaul effectively transmits a sensation of unease.  Beyond their skilfully delineated differences of temperament and experience, what these characters share is a position of precariousness.  They are strangers, they are vulnerable, they are defensive.  The Freedom of the “Free State” is an unnerving and unsettling one.  Nowhere does Naipaul make generalised statements about the human condition, and yet by the accumulation of apparently unconnected data, all independently attesting in some manner to the same experience, our overriding impression is that that experience is general.

Naipaul’s skill is in his restraint, in his powers of suggestion rather than assertion.  The humour of his early books has been tempered by a more serious intention here, but its legacy remains in the wryness of his perception.  This is a book that can and should be read again.

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