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Sunday, October 16, 2016

In a Free State (1971) by V. S. Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul at Oxford University
Book Review
In a Free State (1971)
 by V. S. Naipaul

   The Man Booker prize gave out its inaugural award for outstanding work of fiction written by a Commonwealth residing author in the prior year in 1969.  It quickly established a reputation as the second most important annual literary prize in the world (behind the Nobel Prize for Literature.)   As of this year, the Booker has opened up eligibility to English language books from all over the world (including the United States.)  Unlike the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Booker is given for a specific work written in a specific time period (the year prior.)    The overlap between the 1001 Books list (edited in England) and the Booker Prize winners list is close to 100%.

  Naipaul won the award for 1971, the third award given out.  V.S. Naipaul is from Trinidad and Tobago, of Indian parentage, the child of immigrants who came as indentured servants to work in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean.  Naipaul won a government scholarship to study at Oxford University in England, then moved to London and began writing in the mid 1950's.   Naipaul's Booker Prize came several novels into his career.   His Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded in 2001, came towards the end, and in between he pioneered the kind of world-straddling literary reputation that became a template for authors like Salaman Rushdie and Haruki Murakami.

  Although In a Free State came several novels into his career, it's status as a Booker Prize winner cemented Naipaul's marketable reputation.   In a Free State is not a traditional novel, rather it is two short stories and a novella paired to a framing narrative.   In a Free State is the longest of the three stories, about two European expatriates who appear to be in an unnamed Uganda in the aftermath of Independence.  The other two stories feature Indian narrators who are in the United States or England as immigrants.  Naipaul shows exceptional range in his choice of narrators.  The first two are Indian's of no formal education, the third a white European diplomat.   Naipaul, a Trinidadian of Indian ancestry, was none of these things, but he captures all of his voices with astonishing verisimilitude, spanning a range between Toni Morrison and Graham Greene in a single volume.

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