1971 – “In a Free State” by VS Naipaul

If you look at any list of modern classics you will find that VS Naipaul features as a great author. I have never read any of his books and so I took the opportunity of my 60 Books from 60 Years challenge to try one. I chose In a Free State which is actually a series of short stories, of varying lengths, each of which addresses the concept of what freedom is for individuals in different situations.

The book starts and ends with a narrator observing race related cruelty. At the start of the book he doesn’t intervene but in the snippet that finishes the book he does. These very short stories challenge how free someone can be if they can still be oppressed by others and if no one intervenes.

In another story an Indian servant goes to America with his master. He finds that in a land of freedom his dependence makes him a prisoner. Eventually he breaks free but then finds himself in another dependent relationship with a restaurant owner. Finally he marries to gain citizenship but his freedom doesn’t bring him any happiness.

One story tells about two West Indian brothers who move to London. Again, poverty and family expectations do not make them free but tie them to a way of life that imprisons them.

The title story is the longest in the book. It features two British ex-pats living in an African country which is not identified. They are travelling across the country and as they go they reveal to each other, and to the reader, their motivations for coming abroad. Each of them wishes to change something in their lives and to make a difference but as they travel we watch them interact with local people and we become aware that they have very idealised views which don’t match the people they meet. The African country is breaking down as a civil war is starting but the travellers still expect deference and acceptance.

All of these stories are about unhappy people. All of them involve immigration or people away from their home environment. No one in these stories is free because of their circumstances, their history or their vulnerability. This is a sad book because it gives us no hope for how we might release people from poverty, oppression or discrimination.

I could appreciate what the author was saying in this book and I thought that he got his message across well but I did find the book rather depressing. The language was well chosen and the situations were created quickly and believably. I found this a book to be admired rather than one to love and I always felt a bit detached from the action rather than engaged with the story.

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