In a Free State

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Last night I finished In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul, the 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I had previously read A House for Mr. Biswas and A Bend in the River. In a Free State is really three novellas dealing with individuals who have all left their homelands in search of some form of freedom (all for various different reasons) and have eventually found themselves even further lost than before.

The whole concept of displacement and diaspora are central in all of the Naipaul novels I have read in the past. Naipaul himself is a Trinidadian of Indian origin and has dedicated much of his writings to emigrants, ex-patriots, and diaspora populations living in Africa, the West Indies, and elsewhere. Naipaul is often brutal and unforgiving in his portrayal of not just the wealthy living in developing nations, but also of the third world emigrant and of the people inhabiting the poor countries. No one is salvaged in his stories.

In In a Free State, the three stories are tied together by the great loss and feeling of no return experienced by emigrants. Even though they all have physically escaped their homelands, they never truly escape psychologically.

The first story is about an Indian servant who accompanies his boss to Washington, DC when his boss gets a government post in the U.S. Both the servant and the boss have problems adapting to their new surroundings, and eventually the servant leaves his boss to work in an Indian restaurant, only to further lose himself.

The second story is about a West Indian (most likely of Indian descent) who travels to England to help is younger brother become a student and have a better life. But, having such high expectations of a family member on the one hand and having a family member sacrifice himself for you on the other are ultimately destructive.

The final story takes place during a long road trip through what is probably Congo. The two main characters are Europeans who have found themselves in Africa for very different reasons and who are struggling with a mixture of loving the land, feeling disgusted by it and its inhabitants, never feeling fully accepted, and yet not wanting to leave.

The three stories describe three very different types of ex-patriots/emigrants, but each character is tragic and lost, and each portrays the great difficulties associated with belonging, not only in a foreign land, but also in this world. Each character finds some freedom in the new country, only to realize that that freedom is incredibly delicate. They are not completely free in the new country because they are outsiders, and yet if they return home, they risk losing the freedom they were seeking or risk having to return to what they were escaping.

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Filed under Essays, Literature

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