Catching up with Naipaul: In a Free State

In a Free State

Next choice…

In this country in Africa there was a president and there was also a king. They belonged to different tribes. The enmity of the tribes was old, and with independence their anxieties about one another became acute. The king and the president intrigued with the local representatives of white governments.

As I mentioned before, the Landing Book Shelves* edition of In a Free State contains alongside the title piece, four other short stories. Two are first person travel narratives, extracts from a journal which bookend the stories as a prologue and epilogue. Following the prologue are two short stories, ‘One out of many’ and ‘Tell me who to kill’. All of the pieces comprising In a Free State have themes of alienation, displacement and racial tensions. People such as Santosh in ‘One out of many’ have emigrated, and now find themselves struggling to make sense of a new environment where they cling to the periphery of an unfamiliar society. All of the pieces give you plenty of food for thought while not being particularly cheery reads. I  just want to focus here on the title piece (which has since been published separately) to give you an idea of the themes running through the  book as a whole. 

The lines I’ve quoted above are from the deceptively benign opening to the novella In a Free State, sounding somewhat like the start of a simple fable of two warring factions. You imagine that it will all probably come out alright in the end. But a few lines further in when the reader learns that despite the king being more popular with the white people, they are going to support the president because he is stronger, then you suspect that things are not going to be straightforward. By the time you finish the first paragraph you know that armed conflict between the president (who is in control of the army) and the king and his people is inevitable. The president having the support of the white people naturally tips the balance of power.  

The structure of the plot is based around a car  journey, which is a useful device to develop characters and introduce places and events. The road trip sees a couple of white travellers, Bobby and Linda making the 400 mile journey from the capital where they had been attending a seminar to what is still, despite independence,  known as the ‘Southern Collectorate’ . Bobby is a government official and we first encounter him in a hotel trying unsuccessfully to pick up a young Zulu man with whom he shares a drink.  Linda, a colleague’s wife and Bobby aren’t friends, despite or perhaps because of the claustrophobic nature of compound life. Their road relationship fluctuates between being companionable and prickly during the journey as events overtake them; and also as they discuss their feeling towards Africa, its people and its politics. Bobby, sporting a ‘native shirt’ seems anxious to fit in and show solidarity with the African population, having a  ‘brisk, friendly, simple voice he used with country Africans’. At one point Linda challenges his attitude over giving a couple of African hitchhiker a lift by saying, ‘I’m not going to get myself killed simply because I’m too nice to be rude to Africans’. 

Naipaul successfully builds up the tension during the drive as Bobby and Linda become aware that inter-tribal antagonism is building up to the extent that the President’s camp is hunting the King down. Part of the way into the trip Bobby and Linda discover from an American acquaintance that a 4 o’clock curfew is in place in the Southern Collectorate which will mean breaking the journey with an overnight stop. They stay in a run-down hotel where the owner, an elderly white colonel treats his black members of staff just as appallingly as he would have done in colonial days. A distinct atmosphere of menace hangs over the few hours they spend at the decaying hotel. The next day on the home stretch, Bobby and Linda are caught up in a tense, violent incident at a checkpoint, before they finally make it back to the apparent security of the government compound.

After reading Naipaul’s Booker Prize winning novel I was left feeling rather jaded and very disillusioned with human nature. Few of the characters in the story seem very appealing and many, such as the colonel are pretty unpleasant. Naipaul doesn’t seem to spare any of the races: he paints an unattractive picture of most of the white, black and Asian characters. It is hard to find any warmth in the novel, gripping as it is, and there seems to be little optimism for the future in this un-named African state. Greed, corruption, apathy and violence punctuate the action in the story. Naipaul provides no easy answers to questions on the nature of post-colonial society. 

My final Landing Eight book will feature in an up-coming blog post and then I will be trawling the shelves for more material. I do hope to introduce a couple more #LandingAuthor items in the near future too. I also hope to ensure that things aren’t so quiet on The Landing during the autumn months as they’ve been lately.

All for now, and in the meantime drop me a line if you have any thoughts on Naipaul’s work.


 * And thanks to He Who Put the Shelves Up since I’ve been using his copy!


V.S.Naipaul’s Family Letters

I’ve actually still not begun to read my latest Landing Eight novel due to being drawn to dipping into a volume of letters between V.S (Vido) Naipaul and his father Seepersad (addressed as ‘Pa’). The collection is entitled Letters Between a Father and Son and was first published in 1999, more than twenty years after In a Free State. The bulk of the letters in this collection were written when Naipaul left Trinidad in 1950 to take up a place at Oxford.  The volume does also contain letters written to and from Naipaul’s elder sister Kamla so the title is slightly misleading. Sadly, Seepersad died in October 1953 while Naipaul was still in England, having acquired his BA in July of that year. The collection closes with letters charting Naipaul’s first major literary success.

Letters Between a Father and Son

Family letters

As readers of this blog will know, I love reading letters and diaries so when my other half drew my attention to this collection I was happy to be distracted. In an age of email, Skype and Facebook it is hard to imagine what it must have been like to leave your family behind and travel to a completely new country and just to have to rely on weekly or fortnightly letters for news. The collection begins with letters between Vido and Kamla, as she was the first to leave home, travelling to India to study. In the first letter, Vido describes to Kamla his efforts to organise his university application photographs, not being at all satisfied with the results: ‘I had hoped to send up a striking intellectual pose to the University people, but look what they have got. And I even paid two dollars for a re-touched picture’. 

After this humorous comment, Naipaul goes on to discuss his recent reading material, earning my profound disapproval by being extremely dismissive of Jane Austen’s writing. I had previously come across a reference to a speech that Naipaul made in 2011 in which he claimed that women writers (Austen included) were not the equal of men (and certainly not equal to him). This opinion clearly goes back some years as he seemed to have formed it at the tender age of seventeen and never revised it, saying then, ‘if she had lived in our age she would undoubtedly have been a leading contributor to the women’s papers’.  Rather damming I must say, though I assume he meant that at the very least, Austen would have written for a superior sort of women’s paper since even he admitted that ‘her diction was fine, of course’.

I have read contradictory opinions on Naipaul’s character, beliefs and attitudes as well as references to a whole slew of literary spats. If that’s not enough, you can also become embroiled in the question of his behaviour towards women.Without being familiar with his novels, non-fiction or life story, I’m not yet in a position to offer any comment other than to reflect upon what I have gleaned from the letters. Having reached the point at which Vido is a year or so into his studies, I’ve become much more attracted to Seepersad’s personality, both as a person and as a father offering help and advice. Seepersad at this point is working for the Trinidad Guardian and regularly offers wise advice on writing, studying and coping with life at Oxford, ‘Sometimes in our very loneliness you will produce that which will be something new and which you otherwise could not produce. Spot your drones and microbes among your fellow-creatures, but do not let them put you out of your centre [….] meanwhile be a man and cringe to none’.

I was intending merely to skim this collection of letters, but I have found myself reading on and following Naipaul’s early career as well as Kamla’s experiences in India and those of various family members who regularly pop up in the correspondence. I would like to know more about their mother, Droapatie Capildeo but so far, having reached January 1952 she remains (though clearly loved) very much a secondary figure. In one letter to Kamla in 1951, Vido writes ‘She is worthy of all we can give. We oughtn’t to disappoint her. She is the type who suffers in silence, poor dear! I love her; but who has shaped my live [sic], my views, my tastes? Pa.’ This sentiment seems rather sad, loving with faint praise, as it were. But maybe the picture will change further on. Perhaps the letters will shed also some light upon his views of the opposite sex in general. I will read on.

Meanwhile, as a Naipaul novice I would be interested in your thoughts. Till next time…

Naipaul and a Quick Landing Eight Recap

As I am feeling very spring-like this on this lovely sunny morn, I will embark upon a fresh assault on the remaining titles on my Landing Eight challenge list.  Put it down to the sense of anticipation from knowing that the month of May is only hours away around the corner.

Just to recap for those of you not paying attention at the back, here is the original list:

A pile of classic novels



The Daughter of Time Josephine Tey (Orange Penguin)

The Frontenac Mystery François Mauriac (20th Century Classics Penguin)

The Go-Between L P Hartley (Penguin Classics)

In a Free State V S Naipaul (Orange Penguin)

The Periodic Table Primo Levi (Everyman)

The Diary of a Nobody George & Weedon Grossmith (Guild Publishing)

Murderers and Other Friends John Mortimer (Orange Penguin)

The Thirty-Nine Steps John Buchan (Orange Penguin)

I have now reached the exciting final stages of this challenge which dates back to last summer (was it really that long ago?), with only two more books to read. What happens after completion of my task is anyone’s guess at this stage. I will have to come up with a fresh mechanism for tackling the unread books on The Landing I suppose. Though as I have mentioned in a previous post, I do have a plan to defect to The Bedroom Bookshelves during the summer to finish reading Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo series.

In a Free State

Next choice…

In the meantime I will be settling down to read  V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State which we have in an Orange Penguin edition from 1983 (reprint of the 1973 edition). It was originally published in 1971 by Andre Deutsch and won the Booker Prize of that year. In this volume the novella ‘In a Free State’ is preceded by two shorter pieces ‘One out of Many’ and ‘Tell Me Who to Kill’ and all of these pieces are bracketed by a prologue and an epilogue. In a more recent Pan Macmillan edition from 2011, the title piece is published on its own, a decision endorsed by the author as his preface makes clear.

This is not only a so far unread book, but also an as yet unread author for me so will be a first on two counts. It may well be that I should have begun with one of Naipaul’s earlier books such as A House for Mr Biswas (1961) but I have to abide by the terms of my challenge. As you probably know, Naipaul has generated as much sharply critical comment as plaudits for his work but I will talk more about that next time I post.

For now, I will just get on with the book! If anyone out there has read it, you’re welcome to drop a line in the comment box with your thoughts. 

And a ‘Happy May Day’ for tomorrow – dancing around Maypoles is optional!