In a Free State

V.S. Naipaul’s 1971 novel, In a Free State is my least favourite Booker Prize winner, so far. I didn’t hate it, but I was almost two-thirds of the way through the tale before it began to engage at all, and that’s not a good sign.

It’s a depressing read, full of unlikeable characters, and is based in a country viewed by, and narrated through, the eyes of people who have very little love for Africa or its people.

They say there’s good and bad everywhere. There’s no good and bad here. They’re just Africans. They do what they have to do. That’s what you have to tell yourself. You can’t hate them. You can’t even get angry with them.

Bobby and Linda are our protaganists; two people who dislike each other and with whom it is subsequently very hard to spend time. Their road-trip is the basis for the novel, and it takes place in an Africa set to rebel against its Empirical Imperial overlords. From the start of their journey, homeward bound after their visit to a corporate conference, In a Free State describes their torrid relationship, and the countryside through which they travel.

He needed to be calmer. Acknowledging the need, he became calmer.

It does both successfully, and it’s not without its positive aspects. At times, Naipaul’s prose is a pleasure to read, but, much like Bobby and Linda, it wasn’t enough to get me to the Collectorate with a smile on my face.