Displacing the Displacement Novel: V. S. Naipaul’s In a Free State



Various covers for V. S. Naipaul’s In a Free State


Ethics today means not being at home in one’s house. —Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia


There appears to have been some contestation in the published form In a Free State was to assume. Subtitled A Novel with Two Supporting Narratives, V. S. Naipaul’s 1971 masterpiece features the eponymous novel, two stories which he calls “supporting narratives,” and the bookends of a prologue and an epilogue, taken from his own journal during his travels. It is, therefore, more accurately, a novel with four supporting narratives. I mentioned “contestation” because Naipaul and his editor at Andre Deutsch, the formidable Diana Athill, amicably disagreed over the final form: it was Athill’s opinion that the (short) novel bearing the title In a Free State should be published as a stand-alone book. Though Naipaul refused the suggestion at the time, he came round to her point of view nearly four decades later, in 2008, when he issued only the novel, shorn of all the “supporting narratives,” with a short introduction explaining his decision. I am of the view that Naipaul’s earlier decision was the correct one: it had resulted in a formally original and dazzling book, over and above being a remarkable, clear-eyed, truthful and brutal meditation on exile and displacement. Because form seems to have historically been considered—and is still seen as—a white guy’s thing, and because Naipaul never strayed from the realist mode, In a Free State was never acknowledged for the ways it pushed the boundaries. It seems too late in the day, especially after historians such as Hayden White, to talk of form and content separately, but there’s no way to think about a disease without naming it first. Contiguity is a form of continuity, too, and brings with it new sets of meaning. Realism has always troubled its practitioners: In what sense does a novel represent the world in a lifelike manner? Surely by artifice? What is real, or realistic, about the extreme selection process that is plot, the progression of a life’s events that make it on to the page? If we could do away with all the elements that are normally considered crucial to coherence in the realist novel, such as plot, character, and continuity, could we still have something that could answer to the name of novel? If all the connective tissue were taken out, could a narrative still cohere through, say, metaphorical underpinnings, or meaning? Could discrete parts make a sum without the simple method of scalar addition?

This is Naipaul’s project in In a Free State. “I was no longer going to manufacture an artificial, contrived story,” he told Radio 3 in 1973. Rereading In a Free State, I was struck by how its revolutionary nature still remains untarnished; indeed, the experimental side seems magnified at a time when mainstream deployment of the terms avant-garde and experimental, even form, seems to have fallen into misuse and downright error. First, there is the theme of displacement, which Naipaul plays on four different instruments: the autobiographical bookends fashioned out of material from his own journals during a cramped steamer journey to Egypt in early 1962; the two first-person narratives, “One Out of Many,” in the voice of Santosh, an Indian (“Indian Indian,” in Naipaul’s distinction) servant in Washington, and “Tell Me Who to Kill,” narrated by a poor and poorly educated Indian Trinidadian in London; and, “In a Free State,” a third-person narrative in which the author’s point of view or presence is barely felt, about a long car journey undertaken by two English people, Bobby and Linda, across an unnamed East African country, most likely Uganda. Naipaul’s own travels in east Africa in 1966 and his subsequent displacement over the years 1966 to 1971, moving from one friend’s home to another, cadging short-term stays in Scotland, London, Canada, the United States, Gloucester, reaching the edge of despair about being able to finish the work, provided material for the novel, as Patrick French details in his astonishing biography, The World Is What It Is. Over and above what one calls “material,” there is also the more philosophical question of how an author’s “state of being” can become the animating soul of the book he is writing. And yet, this osmosis does not occur in a simplistic and pat “I have been struggling with dislocation, so let’s make my characters all peripatetic, too” way. A better way of viewing this would be as a kind of transubstantiation, in which the aspects of lived experience have become assimilated into a kind of vision of life. To be unmoored, to be on the outside of things, is to be in a free state, too. French quotes Naipaul from an interview he gave to his biographer in 2004: “You will find that many people from far-away countries insist on writing about the far-away country. Their view never amplifies to take in the new experiences that they have actually been living … People are at their most creative when things are very disturbed.”

The whole notion of displacement itself is turbulent and fissile here. Who, for example, are the displaced in that brutal yet compassionate epilogue? In it, desert boys come out of the dunes to grab food thrown at them by Italian tourists for their entertainment, and an enraged author intervenes to stop an Egyptian waiter from whipping the boys. The Italians are strangers here, so is the author, but so is the Egyptian waiter, in a more oblique yet more profound way, siding with the amoral Italians against his own, and so, even, are the indigent boys, out of place and chased away in their own home. In the longer narrative, the time of the white colonist classes, to which Bobby and Linda belong, is over; a new postcolonial nation is emerging but its own people are divided among themselves. The coup by the president’s men—supported by the colonial powers—against the king’s men displaces the latter tribe. In the spectacular final section, as Bobby and Linda drive into the fragile safety of the gated compound meant for expats, they watch the villages of the king’s tribespeople in the bush burn and his people rounded up. Some of them are killed, others tied to each other at the neck. Their time is over, too. Naipaul’s radically undeluded vision spares nothing and no one; everyone is displaced by the end. Each of these narratives asks the questions, “Who is free? And what is the nature of his freedom?” and returns extraordinarily complex answers, answers that shift in time, both in rereadings and in the unfolding of history. His abiding theme of what happens to colonized nations after independence, dealt with startling originality and power in The Loss of El Dorado, the nonfiction book preceding In a Free State, continues in the novel. What if nations are broken in such profound ways by the experience of colonialism that freedom can only launch them into a state of replicating the selfsame power structures, similar instruments of oppression of its own peoples?

When Naipaul wrote the introduction to the 2008 reissue of In a Free State as a stand-alone novel, there was a telling use of faraway: “I had found, in my thirteen or fourteen years as a published writer [he is referring to the year 1971], that my background, and my far-away material, had often been contentious issues for publishers, editors, and reviewers.” Plus ça change … Globe-trotting has become a common enough theme in contemporary fiction: short-story collections, linked or otherwise, in which each story is set in a different country; the “international” or globalized novel or, what feels like more often, the air-miles novel. Naipaul belonged nowhere—part of this unbelonging was willed, as is evident from his spurning of the place of his birth, Trinidad—and this seems to have given him a kind of radical outsider’s vision that saw through to the very core of peoples, histories, and societies wherever he traveled. James Wood talks of the combination of his conservative vision and his radical eye; the combination is explosive.

Compare this with the decadence into which the novel of displacement/exile has fallen. The term has now become exchangeable with the “immigrant novel,” the general template of which is centered around nostalgia for a notional home which the zero generation, usually parents or grandparents, left behind; the fractures of assimilation; keeping alive the flame of the home culture, especially through cooking and music; and, finally, the problematics of the culminating paradise of Westernization as faced by the subsequent generations. This is a terribly insidious trap, amazing only for the way in which generations of immigrant writers have fallen for it, time after time. How did home become this hypostatized notion? One doesn’t have to be a hard-core Althusserian to see what myth of the West this genre perpetuates and to identify the ideological (and, therefore, market) reasons behind the steady, ever-refreshed numbers that sign up to this stereotyping. Of course, great writers will always break the mold of what they’ve been given, or what they’re expected to do: the works of Aleksandar Hemon or Shaun Tan, for example, mint sparklingly new things out of similar themes, subjecting the whole notion of faraway to unique torsion until it yields new meanings. And breaking form was a central part of Naipaul’s artistic endeavor, too: at the beginning of a 2008 essay in The New Yorker, James Wood writes:

“If you want to write serious books,” he said to me, “you must be ready to break the forms, break the forms. Is it true that Anita Brookner writes exactly the same novel every year?” It is true, I said. “How awful, how awful.”

Which brings me back to my earlier point about the formal originality and daring of In a Free State, letting a sequence of unlinked stories converse with each other and allowing that invisible conversation, rather than anything on the page, to provide a coherence that has deeper, stronger foundations than a conventional, seamlessly plotted realist novel (the reverse definition of an artificial, contrived story).

I began with Adorno; let me end with him:

Authors settle into their texts like home-dwellers. Just as one creates disorder by lugging papers, books, pencils and documents from one room to another, so too does one comport oneself with thoughts. They become pieces of furniture, on which one sits down, feeling at ease or annoyed. One strokes them tenderly, scuffs them up, jumbles them up, moves them around, trashes them. To those who no longer have a homeland, writing becomes home. And therein one unavoidably generates, just like the family, all manner of household litter and junk. But one no longer has a shed, and it is not at all easy to separate oneself from cast-offs. So one pushes them to and fro, and in the end runs the risk of filling up the page with them. The necessity to harden oneself against pity for oneself includes the technical necessity, to counter the diminution of intellectual tension with the most extreme watchfulness, and to eliminate anything which forms on the work like a crust or runs on mechanically, which perhaps at an earlier stage produced, like gossip, the warm atmosphere which enabled it to grow, but which now remains fusty and stale. In the end, authors are not even allowed to be home in their writing.

Sixteen years after In a Free State, Naipaul was to publish yet another form-breaking novel on unbelonging, The Enigma of Arrival, powerfully marked by the author’s own melancholy sense of rootlessness. This abiding sense of homelessness, of never arriving, of never reaching the false comfort of assimilation, of never wanting to assimilate, and even going so far as making assimilation a nonissue—why are these not noble aims for the novel? In other words, I’m envisaging a novel which sees outsiderness as enabling, a form that has at its center the question, “What is our place in the world?” and is unafraid not only to question the whole notion of place but also to return another unflinching question: “Why must we have a place in the world?”


Neel Mukherjee is the author of three novels, A Life Apart (2010), which won the Vodafone-Crossword Book Award in India and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for best novel; The Lives of Others (2014), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Encore Prize for best second novel; and A State of Freedom (2017). He divides his time between London and the United States.