In a Free State
by V.S. Naipaul
Knopf, 256 pp., $5.95
This is an extraordinarily penetrating book and a disturbing one. One could well praise the original and powerful novelist behind it by describing the reason for the disturbance—nor would this minimize the disturbance in the least.
V. S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad, to which his grandfather had come from India; he completed his very English education at Oxford. After seven books of fiction and three works of nonfiction, most of them dealing by one stratagem or another with the interrelationships between the West Indies, England, and Africa first made clear to him by the imperialist history of Trinidad, Naipaul has become one of the few living writers of fiction in English wholly incommensurable with anybody else. He is, however, a writer as astonishing as the Orwell who came out of Burma, the Conrad who came out of the British Merchant Navy, the Malcolm Lowry of Under the Volcano who was able, once, to fuse his England and his deadly Mexico under the intense pressure of his Canadian exile.
Naipaul is a colonial brought up in English schools, on English ways, and the pretended reasonableness of the English mind. He lives in the no longer overbearing mother country without much hope in or attachment to anything but English prose. He is an exile who in England is an Indian, in America unknown, in Trinidad a pre-nationalist Anglophile intellectual, and since he had been everywhere, so to speak, from the moment he was born, he has had no reason to stop traveling. In a world where the number of displaced persons is finally identifiable with the storminess of our planet, Naipaul is an exile who writes about nothing else—in the most clipped, elegant, subtle English prose. Naipaul writes about the many psychic realities of exile in our contemporary world with far more bite and dramatic havoc than Joyce brought to that stage Jew Leopold Bloom.
In this new book, one of his very best, he has sharpened and tuned, on five different examples of contemporary wandering, his already prodigious sense of fiction. No one else around today, not even Nabokov, seems able to employ prose fiction so deeply as the very voice of exile. If “our” fiction began with the raw merchants settling into their overstuffed interiors, the brilliance of fiction today would seem to depend on a sense of displacement which so many smart American novelists who have never been put to the actual test have already played with in their more theoretical novels.
What makes Naipaul hurt so much more than other novelists of contemporary exodus is his major image—the tenuousness of man’s hold on the earth. The doubly unsettling effect he creates—for the prose is British-chatty, proper yet bitter—also comes from the many characters in a book like this who don’t “belong” in the countries they are touring or working in, who wouldn’t “belong” any longer in the countries they come from, and from the endless moving about of contemporary …