In a free state
I’ve finished the book a couple of days ago and since then I’ve been trying to get out some sort of vaguely coherent post about it. Thing is, I’m really not in a “writing mode” and every time I sit and try to put words together I end up deleting everything in mid sentence. Nothing makes sense, nothing sounds even halfway decent. So instead of writing about a really great book, I just sit here and complaining about my “writer’s block”. (See how presumptuous I get, calling myself a writer? I know I’m no writer, but it’s just the block talking.)
About the book – later (or right now, if you scroll down a bit). I need to share that thing which is eating me alive: weather. And planes. See, weather and planes don’t mix. Throw Wizzair in the combination and you get a very very very stressed person: me. Next Tuesday I’m leaving for Budapest for the Coldplay concert; I take a plane out of Targu-Mures which leaves 2.30 pm and the concert’s at 8 pm. See why I need everything to work perfectly? (Umm…also because I might be a bit of a control freak.)
Now then…complaining? Check! (Do you know that episode on Friends when they’re leaving for London and Ross and Monica keep saying “check” when counting the stuff they’ve packed? I’m a Friends geek, aren’t I? 😀 )
Anyways, your scrolling shall thus be rewarded, since I am ready to write about the book. “In a free state. A novel with two supporting narratives”. Plus a prologue and an epilogue. It’s the kind of book which you might have realized by now that I particularly favour: the immigrant-experience book. VS Naipaul is an immigrant himself, born in Trinidad, living in the UK, Oxford educated, winner of the Booker prize in 1971 (for this novel) and of the Nobel prize in 2001.
Some of that experience must have went in creating the two supporting narratives (which I must say I enjoyed better than the actual novel) since they both deal with immigrants – Indians living in the US (“One out of many”) or the UK (“Tell me who to kill”).
Santosh (“One out of many”), ends up marrying a “hubshi” (a black woman with whom he has once slept but whom he despises, her and all her race) to get a green card. He is a legal US citizen, but he is more an alien than ever; he seems to have acquired freedom, but he is trapped in his mind, in his old ways that don’t fit within his new life and that will probably torment him until he dies.
“All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face, and have a body and that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over.”
The hero of “Tell me who to kill” (and the narrator of the story) moved to the UK to support his younger brother through school – he’s taken jobs that keep him away from home most of the day, he’s put money aside and he’s starting his own business. This would sound fairly good, except that he doesn’t know anything about running a business, his brother doesn’t really care about his efforts and certainly doesn’t “follow his studies” and he ends up losing everything: money, family, dreams, respect…even a little bit of sanity. Deception drives him towards fantasies of his brother killing a friend – like in the classic movies he’s seen, like in Rope (very good movie, by the way). Left with nothing except hate he cannot direct at anyone but himself, he returns to India after his brother’s marriage to a British girl.
The novella, “In a free state” is the reverse, in a way. It focuses on the journey of two Europeans from an African capital to a place “still known by its colonial name of the Southern Collectorate” where they live while a change of regime is going on all around them: the king was defeated, and there’s a new boss-man, a new president in town. The confrontations are violent, people belonging to the king’s tribe are oppressed and Linda and Bobby, two whites trying to make sense of a world out of their grasp, trying to separate their clichéd expectations from the harsh reality of the place, drive on and talk – rapidly becoming friends, confidants or enemies. The landscape is majestic, it overwhelms them every once in a while, but mostly they are too involved in their little colonial jokes and petty disputes. Bobby, just like the protagonists of the other short stories, is a homeless man, not belonging anywhere, not fitting in with any crowd, merely drifting…like that plastic bag in American Beauty (I love that scene 😀 )
Their mentality and view of the Africans sounds a lot like this: “They say there’s good and bad everywhere. There’s no good and bad here. They’re just Africans. They do what they have to do. That’s what you’ve got to tell yourself. You can’t hate them. You can’t even get angry with them” – and yet they never cease trying to humiliate them.
See, all three of them – displaced, lost on the way to a better future, broken, defeated, and yet very humanly flawed, very vividly described. Mr. Naipaul doesn’t involve himself in their story and doesn’t pass judgment. He just waits around the corner for the ultimate fall and it’s all very concise.
It was a pleasant surprise for me – discovering him. I’ve been meaning to read something by him for a long time, but I was a bit put off by the title (since I expected it to be very politically charged) and by this Patrick French biography which portrays him as a deeply unlikable man. I know that a writer’s life and work are two entirely different things, but reading about him stirred something bad in me (a little bit on the subject of life vs. work, The Guardian makes a very good case for Knut Hamsun).