Friday, February 16, 2018

Now reading Booker Book #5


Booker Book #4: In a Free State, V.S. Naipaul

I thought V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State would be a quick read. It consists of two short stories and a novella, bookended by two travel anecdotes.  I loved the first story. I puzzled over the second. And I struggled through the third.

The first story, “One out of Many,” is about an Indian domestic, Santosh, who accompanies his employer, a government official, from Bombay to Washington, D.C. His debacle of an airplane trip seems to include every possible thing that could go wrong for a poor and naïve traveler on his first long voyage. Once in the U.S., Santosh progresses through several stages: brave exploration, frightened sequestration, fleeing his employer, finding a new one. He is “in a free state,” but this freedom is more frightening than exhilarating, a leap into the void without a safety net. I sympathized with the character’s adjustments and felt that this story did an excellent job distilling the immigrant experience into just forty pages.

The second story, “Tell Me Who to Kill,” sums up one facet of the immigrant experience this way: “ambition is like shame,” that is, trying to rise “above” your origins implies that you are ashamed of them. The title expresses the main character’s frustration with being an island immigrant in London, and the lack of target for his feelings. “Once you find out who the enemy is, you can kill him. But these people here they confuse me. Who hurt me? Who spoil my life?” This story left me scratching my head: is the main character’s companion just a friend, or are they gay? And what about the repeated murder sequence: is it a memory, a dream, or a scene from a movie? No way to know for sure.


Finally, the title novella. In a Free State is the fourth Booker Prize winner, and the third to explicitly address British colonialism. Two white government employees travel through an unnamed African nation in turmoil: the president’s tribe is out to kill the former king.  Similar to J.G. Farrell’s Troubles, the main character, Bobby, vacillates between sympathy for the natives and frustration with them, while confronting another character, Linda, who seems primarily scornful of them. Both Farrell and Naipaul seem to agree that the role of the British is to let the natives figure out their path for themselves. However, I felt the story dragged on and went over my head in places. It seemed like a series of “in jokes” that maybe only readers of the time or expats in Africa could understand. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Booker Book #3: Welcome to the Hotel Majestic. Troubles, by J.G. Farrell

Welcome to the Hotel Majestic, English-owned luxury hotel in Ireland, once grand, now crumbling. Welcome to the sun setting on the British Empire.

Major Brendan Archer, English WWI veteran, has come to the Hotel Majestic in 1919 to make good on a hasty engagement entered into during a brief R&R. Sadly, the young lady has fallen fatally ill, but by the time she passes on, the Major has become as much as fixture in the place as its statue of Venus and can’t tear himself away.

The hotel teems with metaphor: green-eyed ginger (Irish) cats multiply and lord it over hapless (English) dogs, who are fed steak while locals starve. A Sinn Feiner tries to bomb a statue of Queen Victoria. Tropical trees (African and Asian colonies) grow out of control in the Palm Room, tearing down the Empire -- I mean, the Majestic.

The Major, however, stubbornly walks a fine line, trying to maintain the peace and see everyone’s side. Alternately naïve and noble, he counters the reactionary Tory hotel owner with a voice of reason. He’s a likable character, except for his inertia. If he were a real person, I’d be fed up with him after fifty pages, but he is a necessary witness to the quickly declining situation.

Finally, the Major has an epiphany about the owner’s belligerence, and the belligerence of colonists everywhere: they are afraid. Britain is terrified, and lashes out in revenge for all it has lost, blindly overlooking all it has taken from the Irish and the rest of the world.

The tale, as labyrinthine as the old hotel, is punctuated with news items, usually one about “the troubles” in Ireland coupled with one from another hot spot in the soon-to-be-former British Empire, such as India or South Africa.


Much like the first Booker Prize winner, Something to Answer For, which is set in Egypt during the Suez Canal Crisis, Troubles shows that British authors of the 1960s and 70s were preoccupied with post-colonial issues. I prefer Farrell’s take. Though both their protagonists seem to be aimless drifters, unlucky in love, the Major has backbone, the “ramrod posture” that one Irish lass teases him about. He knows right from wrong and speaks his mind, always urging peace.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Now Reading Booker Book #3 (of 52)


Booker Book #2: The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens

Bernice Rubens’ novel The Elected Member is a touching and sad exploration of drug abuse. Norman Zweck (who was ironically never “normal”) was a precocious child and successful adult, the pride of his Jewish immigrant parents. But several things happened along the way – which ones led to him becoming a drug addict? Each surviving family member, his father and two sisters, thinks they know. Is one of them right, or all of them, or none? Regardless, Norman feels he has been “elected” as the family scapegoat. He is committed to a mental institution, where he should have a better chance of recovering from his addiction than in prison – except that he finds a supplier inside.

Despite the gloomy material and minimal action (except for the obligatory institutional incidents), this is a page turner. The flashbacks to Norman’s father’s immigration from Lithuania to London, the sisters’ remorseful recollections about their own childhoods, all meld together seamlessly. The Zwecks make up a miserable family full of secrets, “unhappy in its own way,” as Tolstoy said. Rubens examines the full gamut of psychological reactions to family issues: the father’s denial, sister Bella’s combined guilt and superiority, sister Esther’s refusal to admit error, Norman’s own rationalizing and bargaining. I ached for this family, winced at their flawed coping skills, but kept hoping for the best.


Though the institutional setting reminded me superficially of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the deliberate pace and thoughtfulness are more reminiscent of the less-widely-known novel Ordinary People by Judith Guest. I recommend both Guest and Rubens if you or someone you know struggles with addiction or depression.

PS By the way, I was *thrilled* to see that the second Booker Prize winner was a woman. You go, Bernice!