In V.S. Naipaul’s novel In a Free State the intensity of his descriptions of landscape, and of the forcefield of competing human existences, is staggering. Has there been a better winner of the Booker Prize, the best-known and most lucrative annual award for fiction in English, since this formally innovative work won in 1971? Apparently at the time some of the judges had to be persuaded that ‘a novel with two supporting narratives’ was a novel at all, but perhaps that really was the moment we moved on from what Saul Bellow called the ‘tinkling teacup’ kind of fiction beloved in England.
Naipaul’s supporting narratives are, like the central story, also journeys, and they help to open and close that core venture with glimpses of other travellers in other parts of the world. A tramp is bullied on a ferry to Piraeus. Ragged and dirty Egyptian children, when they beg from tourists in Luxor, are driven away by a man with a whip. A moral point lingers in both tales but then dissipates, as the narrator, only ever a spectator, moves on. In fact there are four such narratives, only tales two and three are longer and more complete. Both follow on the brief account of cruel and petty hostility on board ship, and both take up the theme of the outsider at greater length. In Washington a man of Indian origin frees himself from a state of spiritual slavery by marrying a local woman, but the problem in his soul, of where to belong, and how to achieve being ‘One Among Many’ with dignity, is not solved. ‘Tell Me Who to Kill’ is narrated by a protagonist whose sanity, probably already threatened, is fatally worsened by his life in London as an immigrant. Clothes in all these cases are soiled, as people without money or means, or proper homes, live grimy existences, those lives occasionally relieved by bursts of good fortune or whimsical, extravagant spending. The links with the main narrative are occasionally more powerfully signalled in the imagery, as when the tramp on the Greek ferry is baited ‘like in a tiger-hunt’ in India. Meanwhile the range of nationalities – German, Lebanese, Egyptian, English, Indian, American, Mexican, Caribbean, Italian – contributes to a definition of the human that remains forever out of reach. ‘In cafés, shabbier than I remembered, Greek and Lebanese businessmen in suits read the local French and English newspapers and talked with sullen excitement about the deals that might be made in Rhodesian tobacco, now that it was outlawed.’ This is just one among innumerable Naipaul sentences that if you extract it from whichever narrative seems like a story in its own right, albeit one we will never be told, as its morally elusive content reaches back into the novel that is just now drawing to a close, while simultaneously leading it to its end, which only by chance happens in Cairo. ‘Seventeen months later these men, or men like them were to know total defeat in the desert; and news photographs taken from helicopters flying down low were to show them lost, trying to walk back home, casting long shadows on the sand.’ In every case the binding thread winds its oblique course, and the detail is arresting.
Bobby and Linda, two people previously barely acquainted, drive ‘home’ across an unnamed African state, recently independent from Britain. It is now in the throws of a coup. The story mesmerizes in the same way the shorter narratives do, and, like every sentence Naipaul writes, is part of a mosaic. The parts fit together by analogy and the resulting picture at once finished and unfinishable. More pieces, more anecdotes, related to this and that, can always be added. Here is a human-inhabited jigsaw in which the sky and the earth and the ways of men just go on and on.
The brutal physicality, the stink of others, is a Naipaul preoccupation, even when he is in polite society. That has something to do, in Bobby and Linda’s case, with the African heat, and the discomfort of a long intimate car journey on uneven roads, and the rush of adrenalin as dangers come and go. Perhaps his gay dislike of her imperfect womanliness, coupled with suppressed memories of his own phsyical degradation in tentative advances to lovers, also plays its part. Another preoccupation is the blight of race, perpetually real, not to be airbrushed from the human picture, and life-threatening, obliquely in racist 1950s London, but now directly in tribal Africa.
In this story, as in all of Naipaul, culture is truly pathetic, the result of people wanting to bring a little dignity, and pride and order into their lives, or use their cultural inheritance to cover up the want of those essential goods, because actual lives are discontinuous and starved of affection and unfulfilled.
The threat of regression hovers heavy in the air, presses against the windscreen, lurks even when the landscape is beautiful. Everyone knows the threat is there, and that it is also a political threat in a land newly independent from its colonial masters, torn between the authority of president and king. The expatriates, sensitive to the whirr of helicopters, used to roadblocks, can still persuade themselves nothing is untoward. They have their traditions and defences from the old country. They have their stone buildings. They drive imported cars. Such solidities help to hold them psychologically together, except that cars have to be serviced, and compounds called ‘home’ may have to be defended.
Being far from home, if home means anything, is the major Naipaulean theme. It mingles with the secret disappointments of friendship and marriage. In pursuit of the idea of home lives take shape, but that very shape is like a mirage that once appeared in younger days, and has now dissolved. Mirage is another of his ideas. It tends to mean exclusion from love, that is, little for the heart and not much in the way of genital satisfaction either.
‘At last they were at the foot of the cliff and on the floor of the valley. The sun was getting high; the land was scrub and open; it became warm in the car. Linda rolled down her window a crack. At the other side of the valley the escarpment was blurred; colour there was insubstantial, like an illusion of light and distance. They were headed for that escarpment for the high plateau; and the road before them was straight.’ That’s factual description, and perhaps the landscape ought to be enticing; but it’s oppressive, in terms of its light and heat and dust, and even its straight lines. Every now and again human figures move into the edge of the picture, and out again, the extraordinary geometry of the African landscape forming a backdrop to the crudeness and the unexpectedness of human conflict. For Naipaul we’re in a world of untutored minds, of cruelty and brutality, to which the remaining colonialists, with their lingering manners and traditions and education, but also their character flaws, perhaps above all their extraordinary self-deception, or just a feeling they don’t actually have anywhere else to go, are vulnerable.
Naipaul’s theme is the the heartache, the disorientation, the grasping for elusive values – of people caught in between, though they are not, in themselves, especially nice people, not especially worthy of our moral attention, with their pettiness and vanity.
It’s a lesson in high art, how he achieves the objectivity he does. We’ve no doubt the world is like that, heavy, even cluttered with people and objects, moving here and there, not unlike, even in the towns of England, the ‘Africans who had come in from the forest and had used the awkward, angular objects they had found, walls, windows, furniture, to re-create the shelter of the round forest hut… In fact this resort had been created by people who thought they had come to Africa to stay, and looked in a resort for a version of things of home: a park, a pier, a waterside promenade. Now…the resort no longer had a function.’ Naipaul’s editor at his British publishing house Andre Deutsch remembered how often he would tell her he was a damaged man. But his writerly genius was to get the damage out there, through structural and thematic analogy, so no reader need be confined within his rickety soul. Analogy and a few similes, but no memorable metaphors and especially no use of symbol, means that the narratives, resolutely un-transcendent, just travel on, in ever widening circles, not perhaps meaning anything, just like the lives of those caught up in them. Across the landscapes, natural and human, people communicate in variants of language, in pidgin, putting names to people and things that strike others as bizarre-sounding, or frightening, or clumsy or ridiculous.
There’s an evident squaring up to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in this great book. Naipaul has Bobby dismiss it as a bad book, and has Linda agree. But that’s just patter, a bit of leftover society banter, between them. ‘You’ve been reading too much Conrad. I hate that book, don’t you?’ (p.160, Picador edition) Linda and Bobby are not thinking. Or perhaps Bobby is being evasive. They don’t know what Naipaul and we know, that this is the grandest comparison that could be made in the whole of modern literature in English, on behalf of In a Free State, that it resembles Heart of Darkness. If you read the Naipaul first you have to return to the Conrad, and vice versa, to see how the world has moved on. Both are stories of the white man in colonial Africa. Both show how the vast presence of that brooding country forces its visitors on to a moral journey which is soul-destroying and unintelligible. Both stories, of 1899 and 1971, use the institutions of London and the consumer goods of Europe as near-memory and a moral axis. But there’s nothing in the way of boxes of spilled rivets, or abandoned English books and magazines, or a bottle of German Riesling, can find its proper function in these alien environments caught between past and future. Here are primeval worlds not susceptible to any Western idea of progress. The ‘natives’ are superstitious, the visitors ethically astray and time doesn’t matter and there is no God.
Naipaul wrote an essay ‘On Conradian Darkness’ in 1974, in the novel’s wake.
And I found that Conrad—sixty years before, in the time of a great peace—had been everywhere before me. Not as a man with a cause, but a man offering, as in Nostromo, a vision of the world’s half-made societies as places which continuously made and unmade themselves, where there was no goal, and where always “something inherent in the necessities of successful action…carried with in the moral degradation of the idea.” Dismal, but deeply felt: a kind of truth and half a consolation.
The critic Martin Seymour-Smith pinpointed almost fifty years ago, as his unique weakness, the ‘lack of an affirmative message’ in Naipaul. One way to interpret that remark might be, on rereading Heart of Darkness, to note how the seaman who tells it, Marlow, hangs on to moral hope by lying to the fiance of the dead Mr Kurtz. Not horror but love, said Conrad, must prevail. And yet he said it none too strongly, none too convincingly – a matter of two lines in a book of a hundred pages — and Naipaul couldn’t manage it all: not in his fiction and perhaps not in his life either. Naipaul had comedic talent, and descriptive genius, and a deeply unsatisfactory, deeply honest moral intensity which found nothing to attach itself to in actual human behaviour, nor any lasting compensation in nature. Naipaul was the quintessential moral struggler, almost without poetry for the heart, but the creator of the most magnificent and true sentences. Quite marvellous.