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.