In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul (Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers)

It’s hard to imagine what effect this book might have had when it won the Booker Prize in 1971.  The Booker was less well-known then, and it may not have had much impact on the reading public.  If a mass audience did know about it, what did they make of it, then, at the end of the Swinging Sixties, after decades of post-colonial independence movements and those endless famines in Africa?
It’s not just this book’s theme which might have intrigued the reader: the ambiguities of the exploiter and the exploited; the indifferent racism; the incipient violence; the political instability – all set in the vast beauty of Africa and its dust, dirt and disease.  It’s also the strange structure of the book.  It’s in five discrete parts, though it’s not a collection of short stories.  There’s the main story, ‘In A Free State’, preceded by ‘Tell Me Who To Kill’, in which an African goes to London to support his brother’s education.   He makes money but loses it in a failed business for which he has neither skills nor understanding of the rules governing health and safety, and resigns himself to a life so dislocated from friends, family and community that he can no longer even feel the rage he ought to feel.  As the title says, who can he kill to avenge himself for these losses?  Brother has exploited brother, he has been ripped off by the man who sold him a business he couldn’t run, and vandalism and violence is everywhere.  The situation into which he so naively ventured is too overwhelming, and he is powerless even to identify the acts perpetrated by both institutions and individuals that have ruined his life, much less exact revenge.

I read and blogged this book on December 30th, 2008.  To read the rest of my review please visit

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