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 life have acquired a feeling of their own unreality in the “free state” of endlessly moving about. All travel is an adoptive consciousness—only Ulysses was transported in his sleep. And it is so much consciousness, “raised” yet unavailing, that makes one’s motion and freedom clash with so many other too conscious egos forever crazily on the move. There is a peculiarly contemporary despair in seeing so much exertion of the will mocked by the lack of tradition, assurance, and moral comfort in which we travel.
In the “Prologue, From a Journal,” the author is on a dingy Greek steamer crossing from Piraeus to Alexandria. He travels on the upper deck, where there are cabins, in the company of German businessmen, Lebanese, “fat Egyptian students” returning from Germany, Spanish night-club dancers, American students, Yugoslavs. On the lower deck, night and day their only place, are Egyptian Greeks.
They were travelling to Egypt, but Egypt was no longer their home. They had been expelled; they were refugees. The invaders had left Egypt; after many humiliations Egypt was free; and these Greeks, the poor ones, who by simple skills had made themselves only just less poor than Egyptians, were the casualties of that freedom.
An Englishman in a tweed jacket with a rucksack, who looks as if “he might have been the romantic wanderer of another generation,” turns out to be an utterly destitute old man, a penniless tramp, who so maddens people on the upper deck that they hound him, keep him hidden in the lavatory, until the ship reaches port—where they promptly forget him. In the “Epilogue, From a Journal,” the author, touring Egypt and meeting up with members of a Red Chinese circus, finally steps in and protests the absentminded cruelty to some local children who are being made to run around and are being whipped by an Egyptian for the amusement of Italians, Germans, Belgians, etc., with cameras.
Prologue and Epilogue, Naipaul speaks in his own person, tells his own story of ultimate defenselessness without pretending to be detached. But in two of the three stories that make up the body of the book, the Indian and West Indian characters in foreign parts are the narrators. One can see that Naipaul steps in at the end of the book only to emphasize his anguished belief that it is active history, a contemporary “situation,” that he has been living all his life—not some generalized “human condition.” Imperialism, even in decay, is the unforgettable background still mingling with everything he writes. The Indian from Trinidad who went to Oxford is always part of the story he is always telling, like the mad English-Spanish search for gold that settled for African slaves. Naipaul has lived imperialism, and for such writers, apparently, only the imperialist’s language is left to console themselves with. But there is also the plight of the brilliant boy who left his home and now recognizes that he has changed too much to be able to return to that “innocence” that existed only among those who never traveled.
In one funny and thoroughly satiric story, “One Out of Many,” a minor Indian diplomat brings his beggarly Indian servant to Washington with him. There he is paid $3.75 a week, willingly sleeps in a closet, but despairingly telling the story of his life in the “capital of the world,” relates with astonishment that he has seen headshaved Americans in orange tunics swaying and chanting Hindu hymns, while the blacks. the hubshi, are exultantly destroying their own neighborhoods by fire. A marvelous touch is that only in Washington does he discover that his sahib is young, exactly his own age, and that he himself is attractive to the frighteningly large black woman who eventually takes him in, marries him, and so makes him an American citizen. This does not make him feel at home.
In “Tell Me Who to Kill,” an Indian from the West Indies goes to London with his adored younger brother to promote the boy’s studies, works himself almost dead, and then finds that the shop he has bought with his accumulated savings is being destroyed by the local hippies. The boy, quick to marry a white girl and to escape, doesn’t want what his brother wants for him. Only lovingly retained images from his favorite movies have explained London to the Indian; now he would like to find someone to kill.
The long title story, the major piece in the book, describes a journey by car in an African republic undertaken by a young British civil servant, a homosexual, and the wife of a colleague. The pair are traveling from the capital to the foreigners’ compound where they will be safe; the country is disturbed. It once had a king and a president; the king is now being hunted by the president’s troops, and he will be killed as contemptuously as are the people of his own tribe, who are being rounded up and tied together as Negroes used to be in the days when rival tribes picked them up for delivery to the slave traders. The highway is for great stretches unpaved, the rain comes down just when they hit straight earth, the windshield is ignorantly scratched instead of washed at a filling station. But in the car, Bobby, who once had a “breakdown” at Oxford and is defensive, vulnerable, is chatting gamely with the wife, Linda, though she has a reputation as a “man-eater” and her womanliness often enrages and frightens him.
Naipaul has never encompassed so much, and with such brilliant economy, with such a patent though light-handed ominousness of manner, as in this story. The volume of detail is extraordinary, and so is the sequence of action parodying the fretful trip by car as Bobby confesses his dream of returning, somewhere, out of the rain, to a warm lighted house. Meanwhile there is the helicopter above searching the roads for a sight of the fleeing king; the Zulu boy whom Bobby in a bar halfheartedly tries to make, over a lesson in math; the sudden non-farcical sight of the too fat, indolent native troops running under the shouting orders of their Israeli military instructors; the old, still imperialist-minded, wog-hating retired British colonel who keeps a sort of hotel along the road, and though he gamely continues to serve five-course dinners, expects to be murdered by his native staff, one of whom is a local agitator and tries to steal Bobby’s car.
The sinuous conjunction of the talk between the unloving couple in the car with the sudden sharp treacheries of the road and the weather, and above all the dramatic movement, line by line of landscape and action duplicating the mingled ease, boredom, and anxiety of a long trip by car—all this gives “In a Free State” an amazing tense fullness in all it takes in and suggests of the African landscape, the old “settler mentality,” the educated African politicians whom Bobby and Linda discuss and whom we never see, the sheer sweating fear of the English and blacks toward each other.
I suppose one criticism of Naipaul might well be that he covers too much ground, has too many representative types, and that he has an obvious desolation about homelessness, migration, the final placelessness of those who have seen too much, which he tends to turn into a mysterious accusation. Though he is a marvelous technician, there is something finally modest, personal, openly committed about his fiction, a frankness of personal reference, that removes him from the godlike impersonality of the novelist so often praised by Joyce—and so much cherished by novelists like Nabokov who angrily deny that they use themselves. Naipaul belongs to a different generation, to a more openly tragic outlook for humanity itself. He does not want to play God, even in a novel. He has associated himself with “History,” and does not expect better treatment.
December 30, 1971