Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Complete Booker 2010 Challenge: In a Free State

I found this book both uneven and disappointing, and alas, those impressions grew as I read on. I was eager to explore the "free state" experience and primed to appreciate the implications of America as a free country, Africa as a newly freed continent, and the characters themselves as free from the conventions of their old lives. This expectation was well-met at first, but by the time I finished the title section, it had faded dramatically.

The prologue purports to be a journal entry, but bears no relation that I could see to the other stories. It's a nicely written sketch of an unsettling incident aboard a Greek passenger ship on a two-day crossing. Unless the tramp's dapper but grimy clothing is supposed to signal the worn-out propriety of the colonial powers, I'm at a loss to connect this prologue with the other sections.

The first section, "One Out of Many," relates the experience of an Indian immigrant who has become a citizen and a resident of Washington, D.C., but who misses his life in Bombay. Through his tale we discover that the benefits of American life have translated into hard work, little money, few friends, and no real prospects. Although in Bombay he slept on the streets, he and his friends were respectable servants, with free time, some spending money, and the camaraderie of each other's company. Simply by describing his life, the narrator highlights how American freedom includes also the freedom to feel lost, without a clear social place, and to fail.

The second section, "Tell Me Who to Kill," introduces a different narrator with a different manifestation of the same problems of isolation, victimization, and failure. This man from the West Indies works to support his brother's studies in London, a city essentially hostile to both of them. It soon become apparent that the brother is not studying and the narrator's sacrifices are leading nowhere. The narrator's voice is pitch-perfect as he describes the hardships he faces just to survive, and how he misses the simple life he left behind. Exchanging one poverty for another has not been a bargain; at home, despite his poverty, at least he belonged.

The final and longest section, "In a Free State" chronicles a seemingly interminable car ride by two people who dislike each other and who mistrust everyone and everything in the dangerous African countryside through which they drive. Their self-centered, racist attitudes may have been accurately depicted, but I actually found myself hoping they would come to some sort of violent end. The most interesting part of the journey was their stop at a ruined hotel, where the setting and the colonel in charge gave off echoes of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Otherwise, I couldn't wait for this ride to be over.

The final section, another so-called journal entry, sketches an incident in newly-independent Egypt in which begging children are tempted with thrown food and photographed by tourists--and chased away by the authorities--as impartially as if they were sparrows or squirrels. Whatever its form, Naipaul seems to say as his final word, freedom is no picnic.

Excerpt (from "Tell Me Who to Kill"):

The train hot inside, the windows running with water, people and their clothes smelling. My old suit is smelling, too. It is too big for me now, but it is the only suit I have and it is from the time of money. Oh my God. Just little bits of country between the towns, and sometimes I see a house far away, by itself, and I think how nice it would be to be there, to be watching the rain and the train in the early morning. Then that pass, and it is town again, and town again, and then the whole place is like one big town, everything brown, everything brick or iron or rusty galvanize, like a big wet rubbish dump. And my heart drop and my stomach feel small.

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