0349 | In a Free State | V. S. Naipaul

0349 | In a Free State | V. S. Naipaul

Context: Was reading this when I visited the National Orchid Garden of PNG outside Port Moresby. Amazing variety of the weirdest-looking flowers I’ve ever seen.


I don’t think I’ve ever read any Naipaul before. Can’t think why. This was an excellent series of short stories wandering through themes of empire, colonialism and identity and is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago, if not more so.

The book has four narratives:

  1. The opening and closing are from the point of view of a traveller embarking on a ship to Egypt and then being a tourist in Egypt.
  2. There is a narrative about a guy who is a cook for an Indian diplomat who takes him to the US where he ends up being an illegal immigrant.
  3. The most opaque story involves the bitter thoughts of a man whose brother had made a success of emigration while he still struggles due to some bad choices.
  4. The longest story involves a car journey that two ex-pats take through an East African country which is fictional but which has recently gained independence with all the consequent instability that brings.

All the stories have are deeply psychological with Naipaul using tension throughout to convey the impression of dislocation and crisis for almost all the characters. Much of what the characters struggle with is very moving. The Indian narrative in particular brought to mind the struggles of the characters in Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Naipaul must surely have influenced many Indian writers.

If you’re like me and you’ve spent your life wandering the earth and have given up all hope of finding a place where you feel settled, then a lot of what these characters go through will resonate with you. Through some prophetic serendipity, this was also the Booker Prize winner from the year of my birth.

This is not an uplifting read, but it is a very powerful book that deals with the realities of the colonial legacy. With the rise of globalism in the decades following its publication, it has only become more relevant to our times. It quite rightly brought Naipaul the accolades and recognition he would come to deserve in his lifetime.


It was only a two-day crossing from Piraeus to Alexandria, but as soon as I saw the dingy little Greek steamer I felt I ought to have made other arrangements.


Bobby pulled the bonnet-release lever and handed over the keys. The uniformed men searched under the bonnet and in the boot, while the plainclothesman himself patted the upholstery on the doors and felt between the seats. He opened Linda’ suitcase and pressed down the flimsy contents with a flat, broad hand.

‘So you’ve been troubled,’ he said at last.

It was the formula of dismissal. Then hurriedly, when the car was moving off, like a man remembering part of the drill, he smiled and raised his hat. The hair on which the hat sat so lightly was extravagantly of the English style, scraped together in a high springy mound on one side, with a wide, low parting on the other side.


Seventeen months later these men, or men like them, were to know total defeat in the desert; and news photographs taken from helicopters flying down low were to show them lost, trying to walk back home, casting long shadows on the sand.


0349 | In a Free State | V. S. Naipaul | 85% | Excellent

Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement | Style Read more about how I come up with my ratings

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