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V. S. Naipaul: In a Free State

This book consists of three stories, a prologue and an epilogue. All five deal with issues relating to colonialism and migration. This review focuses on the longest of the three stories, called In a Free State. The other stories deal with immigrants arriving, respectively in London (a West Indian) and Washington D.C. (an Indian) and the problems the immigrant faces in these two cities. The title story is set in a fictitious African country, recently independent after years of British colonialism. The old tribal animosities have re-emerged and the king is fighting to retain his throne in the face of attacks from the president. The white colonisers initially support the king but the president is stronger and has the army so the white men, ever pragmatists, switch their support to the president. Bobby works in the South – the king’s region – but is currently in the capital where everything is calm and where he can try and pick up young men (he tries with a young Zulu and fails). He now has to drive back to the South, four hundred miles away. He has been asked to give a lift to Linda, wife of one of his colleagues. The colleague has to stay on in the capital and Linda wishes to return home. However, he is not happy about taking her. Most of the story is about their journey. The relationship between the two is key as Bobby does not hide his displeasure at being forced to take a a passenger and he takes it out on Linda, disparaging her at every opportunity. When he finds out that she plans an extramarital adventure en route, he is particularly critical. They stop on the way at a hotel run by an old school white colonel whose vicious treatment of his servant, Peter, shows that the old colonialism is not yet dead. However, later on during their journey, they are themselves attacked and learn what it is like to be on the other side and also get a foretaste of what the country might become.

This book won the Booker Prize, though it is not, in my opinion, one of Naipaul’s best works. It does, however, indicate, as he is done in many of his other works, various aspects of colonialism and immigration and how post-colonialism will bring its own problems. But, ultimately, it is a slight work compared to some of his others.

Publishing history

First published by André Deutsch in 1971