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Autonomy and Autocracy in V. S.

Naipaul’s In a
Free State
The title of Naipaul’s In A Free State (1971)[1] is a fertile and suggestive one that has set many critical puzzles. Immediately, it
seems to refer to a state which is politically free, such as the independent, postcolonial nation-states from which the characters
in the stories come and in which the title novella is set: respectively, India and Trinidad, and a conglomerate of African nations.
This freedom, however, turns out to be largely theoretical and ironic since most of the countries featured in the book are
perceived, one or even two decades on from independence, as still being the playthings of colonial powers. More commonly, the
title has been taken to refer to freedom as a psychological state, a state of mind and being which causes anguish,
abandonment, and the loss of personal attachments.[2]Alternatively, it has been suggested that in his choice of title Naipaul is
drawing upon a scientific metaphor—namely, the idea of the free-floating movement of subatomic particles around a nucleus [3]—
and there is ground for this view in the book’s structure. In a Free State is an assemblage of unblended, discrete elements—two
stories and a novella loosely joined by a prologue and an epilogue—which seem not to be formed around any nucleus and
therefore fail to cohere as a single work. In the following pages I attempt a brief survey of these different dimensions of freedom
—political, psychological, scientific—but my main concern is to investigate another aspect of freedom, one which has received
surprisingly little direct or detailed comment. This has to do with Naipaul’s fictional ontology, that is, the degree of autonomy of
his characters and the extent to which they create the illusion of a separate, independent reality. In my examination of the book’s
range of ontological modes and their positive and negative ramifications, I shall endeavor to show that In a Free State is a
contradictory work in which the relationship of the two stories (“One Out of Many,” “Tell Me Who to Kill”) to the title novella (In a
Free State) is perhaps less one of either orbiting satellites or careering particles but more a relationship that closely resembles
the situation of polar magnets: contrary gravitational pulls, like the opposing pressures that hold the keystone in position in an
arch, preserve the book’s precarious equilibrium.
Naipaul said in an interview during the year of the book’s publication that with each novel he was finding it “harder and harder to
do the artificial side of making up big narratives” and simply decided “to let the book fall into its component parts.” [4] Though the
individual sections of the book are each set in a 1960s postcolonial world and feature common themes of displacement and
transplantation to alien cultures, they also—in their diverse speaking voices, geographical settings, and narrative techniques—
have the randomness of “component parts” left to lie where they fall. The first story, “One Out of Many,” explores the traumatic
cultural adjustments forced upon a humble Indian servant, Santosh, when he is uprooted from the pavements of Bombay by his
diplomatic employer and taken off to a new life in Washington, D.C. The second, “Tell Me Who to Kill,” charts an unnamed West
Indian’s pursuit of his scapegrace brother Dayo to London, where he becomes a victim of racial violence, lapses into a world of
Hollywood cinematic fantasy, and appears to suffer a mental breakdown. The novella, In a Free State, describes the 400-mile
road journey of two British expatriates, Linda and Bobby, across a newly independent African country in the throes of a tribal civil
war, their growing alienation from both Africa and each other, and their powerlessness to withstand the senseless violence and
brutality raging around them. These three pieces are flanked by a Prologue and an Epilogue in which an almost identical motif
unfolds: a traveler (a narrator, then Naipaul himself) looks on in painful detachment while scapegoat figures (an old English
tramp, a group of Egyptian boys) are cruelly tormented by groups of tourists in neutral territory (a Greek passenger steamer, a
hotel resort).
In each of these compositions, questions of freedom and determinism, both political and psychological, are well to the fore. To
be a colonial, said Naipaul in an early interview, is to have every move monitored from the imperial metropolis: it is “to know a
total kind of security. It is to have all decisions about major issues taken out of your hands, to feel that one’s political status has
been settled so finally that there is very little one can do in the world.”[5] To escape this facile determinism, the colonial—or, in this
book, the newly ex-colonial—pursues freedom through travel. In In a Free State, however, this pursuit of elsewhere, a quest for a
greater individuation and independence, leads only to alienation and dislocation, and the expatriate, in his reverse-crossing,
meets much the same fate in his attempt to satisfy the mysterious yearnings and cravings he brings with him to the ex-colony.
The result is that the plight of the uprooted former colonial becomes a metaphor for modern restlessness, and homelessness
and exile are perceived as a contemporary state of mind, afflicting all. To be “in a free state” is thus to be abroad and adrift in the
modern world. In Naipaul’s early writings, his characters are victimized by a succession of narrow environmental and historical
determinants which to withstand they need all of their immense vitality and resourcefulness: poverty and unemployment (Miguel
Street, 1959); cramped domesticity and debt (A House for Mr Biswas, 1961); borrowed political machinery and ideologies (The
Mimic Men, 1967); and, overshadowing all of these in each book, the oppressive Caribbean heritage of slavery and indentured
labor. In In a Free State, Naipaul frees his protagonists from these constraints and transplants them into a larger, more spacious
world: a repeated pattern in the book is the emergence from small, self-enclosed places—cupboards, cabins, basements, cars,
compounds—into a larger space. But this expansive movement is largely illusory, since the larger world in which the characters

and its casualties retreat from it into the safety of their cabins. without any basis for unity. and echoing motifs: the characters’ American involvements. and experience distance them from their author and his own distinctive speaking voice. in his obscurantist respect for his character’s freedom. In a Free State is unique among Naipaul’s fiction for the number of virtuoso performances which the author turns in. whether his attendant Frank is his jailer. there remain opaque areas. aporias. shifting alliances of the strong against the weak. inevitably perhaps.[6] These characters can be seen to be in a free fictional state to the extent that their differences in temperament. both of which develop with minimal authorial interference. thinks. has abrogated the right to speak for him. in Naipaul’s fictional ontology. they refuse to tell us everything about themselves and seem to lie beyond the reach of the author’s omniscience. the author. notably in the story “Tell Me Who to Kill. unpredictable travel of particles is comparable to that of the book’s characters. in fact. to confused identities. The narrator is unable to explain any of these events. the motif of the journey which removes people from their normal surroundings. that is. and the tramp in the Prologue seem to move without any clear direction in a space without any gravitational pull or magnetism which would hold them together around a common center. The principal characters. they constitute. as indeed do the tribes flung randomly together. personality breakdowns and outbursts of groundless anarchic violence. Dayo’s brother. During the long car journey across Central Africa in the title novella. Because the protagonists—Santosh in the United States. education. are all completely different from each other and. like the erratic progress of the subatomic particles. or what kind of logic it is that carries the narrative from the hounding of the old tramp in the Prologue to the beating of the Egyptian boys in the Epilogue.are cast adrift is one that they are not equipped to understand. the cinematic fantasies which are drawn from the author’s own Trinidadian childhood. the group of vandals who destroyed his London restaurant. of course. they exist in a social vacuum. projects onto them his own restlessness and sense of placelessness. arguably. Naipaul’s style is crucial in this autonomizing exercise. These are superficially linked by an abundance of arbitrary plot connections. However. to which I shall devote the remainder of this article. is finally unplottable. Dayo’s brother in Britain. The accidental. or friend. true of the book’s individual sections. Santosh. and expatriate compounds. psychiatric nurse. she a racist and nymphomaniac—do not relate to or attract each other in any way and seem to have the unconnectedness of free-floating particles. The autocratic third person authorial voice. and it is finally difficult to say exactly what kind of structure or unity. quirks of personality. they might be called inspired feats of literary ventriloquism through which Naipaul turns himself each time into a different fictional character. to the world they find themselves in. Freedom here is punitive. or the whole white society into which Dayo has married. But there is no transparent authorial explanation of the characters or direction of the narratives. at best. The narrative’s movement has a roaming. The reference here is apparently to the random motion around the atomic nucleus of electrons whose speed and position can be measured. if any.” At the climax of this story. either to the reader or to himself. to be at once all and none of them. but in their relation to the author. and to incomprehension of the surroundings from which they are cut off. a disingenuous character who is less simple than he makes himself out to be. from the author who created them. and Naipaul. unmoored and anchorless. parallel incidents. and worldview. the narrative veers off into one of the narrator’s preoccupying Hollywood fantasies. since the elegance and sophistication of his English are far beyond the capabilities of the narrative self—the uneducated peasant—whom he . obscurities. Bobby in the unnamed African country—have no idea of the state as a polity or organized society in their troubled sojourns. free-standing presences who create the illusion of having seized control of the narratives of their own lives—are not identifiable in any way with Naipaul himself. destructive. although they express themselves. or to the text’s structural elements. and tells his story in his own peculiar style. Each one of them speaks. Dayo the West Indian. deadpan aloof or bleakly dismissive—which is a privileged narrative presence in Naipaul’s early novels and stories and which resurfaces again in Guerillas (1975)—is less conspicuous in this work. And what is true of these relationships is. The characters of In a Free State—all autonomous. What adds to the impression of authentic lifelikeness created by the narrators. Thus. Santosh the Indian. and whether the enemy to be “killed” is his Caribbean family. and which are said to be “in a free state” since their movement is impossible to plot exactly. The subsequently empty freedom which moving in this world brings them is therefore a condemned space. Next. Peter Hughes has suggested that Santosh in “One Out of Many” is a not wholly believable or. does not appear in his own person until the Epilogue. unexplained mysteries. and nihilistic. who. Dayo’s story can be seen as a debased version of his own life: the studies in England to escape the cultural deprivations of Caribbean life. associative kind of logic that invites any number of possibly spurious correspondences between its episodes and. but never at the same time. and myopias are left in. there is the notion of freedom as a scientific metaphor. social worker. leaving a number of things unclear: whether he has committed murder or had a mental breakdown. and Bobby the Englishman. in fact. Perhaps the most positive and least-discussed kind of freedom experienced by the book’s characters exists not in their relation to other characters. is that all their opacities. the scapegoat-victim seeking refuge from freedom in a locked space. his wastrel brother. consigning people to loneliness. cupboards. in the recently formed postcolonial “free state” through which they drive. But none of these amounts to a single unifying framework or principle of organization. the ill-matched travelers Bobby and Linda—he a liberal and homosexual.

The only part of Africa depicted here is a decayed.[7] There are a number of possible inferences from this observation. as in early novels like A House for Mr Biswas. its narratives similarly untether themselves from public history. is a displaced person. between narrative and personal history. proves to be of much more dubious value in the matter of Naipaul’s use of history. however. or another creolized linguistic register. and blood-letting. His projection of his African state into a “free state. and language. liberates him from any obligation to observe historical fidelity. phenomena as geographically distinct and dissimilar as internecine ethnic pogroms (Zanzibar in 1964). [13] In Naipaul’s fictitious African state. is disingenuous in the one at hand because it casually ignores the facts that in 1963 Kenya was not yet in a postcolonial situation but was still a colony. however. private political vendettas (Uganda in . and sufficiently generalised to seem representative. under the extraordinary pressures of that conflict and in wholly different circumstances. the novelist unfairly extrapolates what might. and to realize that. is simply “the man flushed out from the bush. partly as a result of this very struggle. seems to have escaped notice and is more germane to our discussion of Naipaul’s fictional ontology is the way in which this basically primitivist colonial concept of the African continent is licensed and reinforced by Naipaul’s treatment of Africa’s recent political history. immediately upon gaining self-government. The novelist’s conflations issue in what Landeg White has called “a ‘free state’ sufficiently located in recent history to seem real. in the same way as the Nigerian Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart (1958) uses English to represent Igbo. disdainful opinions of Africa and Africans. [12] What. Basically.” such as patois. disconcertingly. oath-taking.[11] and they are present in abundance in the title novella of In a Free State.supposedly represents. takes the two British expatriates through at least four countries. to imply that the characters are speaking a form of English deemed “subcultural. conventional rhetorical device for presenting another language. whenever they lapse into incorrect. conceivably. or. Naipaul is neither open to the charge of artistic failure in the stories of In a Free State nor prone to postmodern self-reference and reflexivity. Here. What works well for people is less suited to countries and cataclysmic political events. [8] the story mainly narrates his thoughts. naturally revert to primitive tribalism. engaged in a militant struggle for its independence. as Peggy Nightingale correctly observes. expressed in another way. and. beliefs. dilapidated settler colony in the eastern part of the continent in which the indigenous people inherit nothing on the day of independence. Zaire. Naipaul’s appropriation of recent African political history into an autonomous fictional realm sacrifices the “real” to the “representative” (to use White’s terms). are that Africans. What is a strength and a virtue at the level of characterization. between the forces of President Obote and King Freddie. that the impossible southward journey traveled in the title novella. In the absence of any detailed investigation of local particulars. In practice. and go back to the bush. None of these. and actually exists nowhere except in his private fictional world as what could be called a conglomerate patchwork Africa of the literary imagination. the Ugandan and Kenyan episodes are pressed into one and made to happen at the same time and in the same place. Naipaul is adopting the familiar convention of using formal. the fictional manipulation of known facts seems to be deliberately obfuscatory and confusing. In a Free State. Naipaul’s abrupt conferral of “civilization” takes no account of the fact that this unidentified African too. was to take a completely different course from Uganda’s. with the result that the narratives’ background incidents cannot be tied to any single historical point of reference or located in any specific event. While the book’s characters cut themselves free from the author’s personal history. unlike the other stories in the book. the title novella willfully conflates two quite separate historical episodes: the tribal war in 1965 in postindependence Uganda. quite credibly. quite deliberately. identified mainly by his smell in the narrative.” as in much postcolonial writing from superficially anglophone parts of the Commonwealth. correct English to represent Hindi. presumably intended. happen after independence in one country from what went on during the independence struggle. and the outcome is somewhat tendentious and misleading. a third is that attention is being drawn. Rwanda. a second sees the portrait as artistically flawed because Naipaul takes insufficient trouble to suppress or disguise his own speaking voice. pidgin. to whom. Naipaul acquired—and seems to have cultivated—a reputation for some rather sour. there is no indigenous perspective to press the point. and that they waste their independence. and that its own postindependence future. from which are drawn the abundance of African surnames and place names that fill the narrative. civilization appeared to have been granted complete” (104). with independence. Santosh’s “English.[9] Naipaul’s central African state is really an amalgam of Uganda. is being simple and sophisticated in his own language. uprooted from societies with their own intricate customs. Santosh. This implied argument. has much validity because the original observation on which they are premised partly misses the point. ancestral traditions. argot. functions merely as a standard. It has been noticed. in another country. which ended with national independence in 1963. The African. In his early career.” [10] The double “seem” here is a crucial qualifier.” in fact. like the expatriates. and the Mau Mau insurrection with its oath-taking and blood-rituals in colonial Kenya during the War of Independence against the British. it privileges figurative over literal representation. One suggests that the author intends Santosh to be seen as a duplicitous character. All of this has received copious critical comment and need not detain us here. and Kenya. to the authorial presence. or even to maintain plausibility. The resulting impressions. In this light. to which past events may have lent plausibility in some African contexts. thus eroding the boundaries between fiction and journal. namely. carelessly intruding his own more rarefied perceptions about freedom and identity into his uneducated domestic’s closing peroration. ungrammatical English. With a cavalier disregard of historical process. his native language. throw away opportunities for national unity in the postcolonial phase. We are to assume that Santosh is thinking and narrating in Hindi. for example. in the city.

In both the stories and the novella. In the title narrative. the author’s personal colonization in the novella of characters who are given their manumission in the stories can be seen as the narratological equivalent of the excolonial powers’ continuing neocolonial interference in the affairs of their former territories. consisting of a few striking. powerful symbolic gestures and tableaux: for example. but tends to be sketchy and atmospheric. in Africa. structured rituals serving nationalist military strategies (Kenya in 1963) are all carelessly jumbled together under the vague rubric of “tribal behavior” without any qualifying differentiation. and there is an implied matching of individuals and countries. As Robert Boyers has observed. Wisdoms drawn from postindependence Africa are mischievously retroacted into pre-independence situations. thereby confusing tribal civil wars with nationalist independence struggles. Naipaul plays the roles of both the imperialized and the imperialist. the Colonel—reflect almost identical views stated baldly by the autocratic third-person narrator in the opening paragraphs. . and morale-boosting. but in ways that stress differences more than the similarities. aspire with a corresponding lack of conviction or success. they are. In this book Naipaul grants autonomy with one hand and snatches it autocratically away with the other. contains no political analysis.[14] the presentation of political reality in Naipaul’s fiction is generally not very complex. roped neck-to-neck and reduced to their ancestral status as slaves. however. fictional ontology expresses the state of the nation. rather. history repeats itself and nothing changes. respectively—by turns a burdensome affliction and an authorial privilege—and confusion is both an involuntary psychological state endured by the characters and a deliberate narrative ploy practiced upon the reader. invite the facile inference that.1965). such would entail details of the ideologies and strategies of the rival forces and the relative merits of their policies. the habitual blurring of particulars combines with certain historical sleights-of-hand and disingenuous shifts of locale to rig the case against postcolonial Africa. at the national level. they act like the opposite poles of a magnet. on the other hand. one and the same in the novella’s oppressively monolithic narrative vision. pervasively. This peremptory eclipsing of the characters’ freedom is then matched. In both stories. In the stories and the novella. In a Free State is a work of unresolved tensions in which the two stories neither rotate around the nucleus of the title novella nor career randomly in its vicinity. by implication. The starting assumptions in this endeavor are at times perilously and transparently close to those of the veteran expatriates and old colonials featured in the narrative. indeterminate narrator. the characters merely turn up evidence to support the narrator’s generalizations and to rig the “facts” in advance for the encroaching author to discover exactly what he set out to find. in the fragments that constitute In a Free State. the characters’ autonomy appears to be compromised and curtailed by authorial predispositions. apparently to present it in the worst possible light. the mysterious naked men running by the roadside. by a similarly preemptive treatment of their postcolonial country of residence and its history. neocolonial dependency with colonial subordination. The title novella of In A Free State is essentially the work of an expatriate sensibility which. discharged into an unprotected independence that is largely unwanted and unwelcome and to which their countries of origin. and implied author are often undefined and at odds. or the prisoners in the civil war. Indeed. to the extent that the imperial sentiments and prejudices expressed at different times by the expatriate characters—Bobby. in spite of its profusion of political sound effects and atmospheric effusions. Linda. the characters are set anarchically adrift from their author. In this work. freedom is the characters’ and the author’s. While in the stories the viewpoints and psychologies of character. Thus.