Apr 4, 2008

In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul (and one more giveaway)

In a Free State is a collection of two short stories/travelogues, two novelettes, and one novella, all of which deal with alienation and with the often difficult relationship between different cultures.

“One out of Many”, the first novella, is the story of an Indian servant who accompanies his boss to Washington and ends up trying to make a living on his own. He begins his narrative as follows: I am now an American citizen and I live in Washington, capital of the world. Many people, both here and in India, will feel that I have done well. But. As his story unfolds, the reader is shown what hides behind his “but”. Reading this story – my favourite in the book – reminded of Interpreter of Maladies, which I read recently. Many of the things I found in that book can also be found here.

“Tell me Who Two Kill” is the story of a West Indian man who follows his brother to London, working two jobs so that he can help him get an education. It’s a heartbreaking story about how disillusionment can lead to despair, to bitterness and to hatred.

In “In a Free State” we follow Bobby and Linda, two expatriate British citizens, as they drive across a fictional African nation torn by civil war. One of the very first things the story does is call our attention to the word “free”. This so-called free state has been decolonized, and yet not all that much has changed. Attitudes and mentalities remain the same – especially the “us versus them” mentality that colours Bobby and Linda’s perception of all the Africans they deal with. “The Africans” (like “the Jews”, “the Muslim”, “the poor”, “the black”, “the Chinese”, you name it) are dehumanized, are put at a distance, are perceived as alien.

If there’s one thing that makes my blood boil is overhearing people saying such things as “I met a Greek last summer. Greeks are <...>, or “My cousin’s girlfriend has a brother who works with a Chinese man and he says that she said that the Chinese are <…>, <…> and <…>.” I feel like interrupting and saying, “Excuse me, I thought you were saying you met one Greek/Chinese/Finnish/Lebanese person?” Sometimes the adjectives that are being used to describe a whole nationality aren’t even negative ones, but what’s behind it scares me nonetheless. I refuse to think of large groups of people as homogeneous, faceless and alien. As threatening. And the swiftness with which people fall into such generalizations is responsible for far too many problems.

Anyway. Back to the book. What to say of what passages such as these exemplify?
‘The Marshalls talk about the smell of Africa. Have you heard her?’
‘I should have been firmer.’
‘This very special smell.’
‘I’ve never got on with people who talk about things like the smell of Africa,’ Bobby said. ‘It’s like people who talk about, well the Masai.’
‘You may be right. But I used to think I wasn’t very sensitive, getting this smell of Africa that the Marshalls and everybody else said they so loved. But I got it this time, when we came back from leave. It lasts about half an hour or so, no more. It is a smell of rotting vegetation and Africans. One is very much like the other.’

On a path on the wooded hillside just above the road about a dozen Africans in bright new cotton gowns were walking one behind the other in the rain, covering their heads with leaves. With the bright colours of their cottons, and the leaves over their heads, they were very nearly camouflaged. They didn’t look at the car.
‘That’s the sort of thing that makes me feel far from home,’ Linda said. ‘I feel that sort of forest life has been going on forever.’
‘You’ve been reading too much Conrad. I hate that book, don’t you?’
In a Free State is undoubtedly a powerful and important book. I believe that colonization is a mistake from which the world may never fully recover, and it’s important to tell stories that show why, that make people thing about these things. But it’s an idea book – and I’m not saying that novels that serve to illustrate ideas are bad, or that I don’t enjoy reading them, or that I didn’t enjoy this book (I very much did). Like I was saying, we do need stories that say certain things - they are often more effective than simple statements because they make us feel, they make us see the world through the eyes of others, they show us different perspectives. However, I never quite manage to feel as close to “idea books” as I do to other types of fiction. But that’s just me.

Chris is giving away a copy of a very cool sounding book: Blackness Tower by Lillian Stewart Carl. The only "catch" is that you have to be willing to read and review the book before the end of the Once Upon a Time II challenge and link to your review at the review site. To be entered, just leave him a comment here.


  1. Great review Nymeth. When I read this one, I read an edition that only had "In a Free State" in it...I'd like to read the other stories as well. They sound quite good as well. I couldn't agree with you more about how infuriating it is to hear people make generalizations about a whole nation based on one experience. It seems to be worse today more than ever with the war and all. Very sad..

    Thanks for plugging the giveaway!

  2. I've not read anything by Naipaul and this book does sound powerful indeed. Yet, another book I'll have to add to my list!

  3. Chris: I actually had no idea the book would have other stories...when I finished the prologue and started the first novella I was confused at first because I couldn't figure out what they had to do with each other :P But yeah, the other stories are definitely also worth reading. And no problem :)

    Iliana: I hope you enjoy Naipaul when you get to him. This was my third book by him, and so far they have all been great reads.

  4. Sounds like a powerful read--I'll have to add it to my wishlist. I have more to say about generalization of cultures/nationalities/ethnicities, but MY blood is starting to boil just thinking about it, so I'm gonna go read. :) Thanks for spreading the awareness.

  5. I like the sound of this. I know what you mean about people making sweeping generalisations between different cultures. I heard someone on the train doing it about the town I am currently living in making some very negative comments. I glared at her a lot and when her friend shushed her as there might be someone from there on the train I piped up and put her in her place! I always stick up for different cultures in my library reading group as some of the older ladies have some strange ideas about other cultures...

  6. It's annoying to hear the ignorant racial generalisation that comes up sometimes, I agree. But often I think it's because people don't get to integrate as much as they should.

    Generalisation is easier when we only come into contact with one Greek/Indian/African/Chinese guy in our daily life. We don't know them very well, so we just fill in the blanks and end up with racial stereotypes that can be rude and demeaning.

    But it does take effort to want to find out more about other cultures. Sometimes I look at my own readings and I realise I don't venture that much out of the usual Anglo-European writers.

  7. Trish: I know what you mean. I hope you enjoy reading this one.

    Rhinoa: It's great that you speak your mind about these things. Those older ladies remind me of the owner of the Nottingham hotel where I stayed in my first night in the UK. There was a marathon that weekend so there were lots of people in the city for it. The owner of the hotel was an elderly lady, and at breakfast the day after the marathon she was loudly talking with an older man and saying that the winner had been a Nigerian "yet again", and that it was unfortunate that black people "were taking everything over these days". I was quite shocked. Fortunately that was the only instance of racism I came across. Over here we have problems with Chinese and Eastern European immigrants, and often I hear derogatory comments coming from very young people, which is even more worrisome.

    Dark Orpheus: I see what you mean. I didn't mean to look down on people who generalize, because I do think that generalization is a basic mental process. Like you said, we need to categorize things so that we can deal with them, and often we form working hypothesis based on limited experience that we then revise with further experience. The trouble is, often people don't get to have a second experience, and those generalizations stay and solidify. Like you were saying, it takes effort. I have caught myself making generalization more than once. What we need to try and do is stop and think that this mental process, understandable as it may be, can have very real consequences in people's lives. It's not always easy, though. We have to remind ourselves. What irks me is that people often seem unwilling to do this. I don't venture much out of European/American writers either, but I have been making a conscious effort to change this. Books are a very good way to have a glimpse of another culture from the inside.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.