Friday, April 8, 2011

In a Free State

In a Free State
By V.S. Naipaul

(This blog post concerned the third (of three) and longest story in V.S. Naipaul's novel In a Free State. The first two stories concern third world immigrants to America and England respectively and are not discussed below.... just so you know)

I suppose you just had to be there.

That's how I felt about On The Road by Jack Kerouac. I suppose if I was young and savage and living on society's fringes in the 1950s On The Road would have been a virtual bible in my hands. But by the time I read it in my late twenties in 2004 it read like so much self-indulgent hippie drivel. So irresponsibly self-absorbed and frivolous. A precursor to the Woodstock generation. I suspect that a good portion of people under the age of 40 who claim to like Kerouac do so simply because they have been instructed to like it because, at one particular point in history, Kerouac was the epitome of cool.

As was Hunter S. Thompson. and although I actually enjoyed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it didn't hit me the way it must have hit readers when it first appeared 30 years ago. The drug and alcohol fuelled mayhem of Thompson's novel has been repeated ad nausem by lesser writers for so long that going back to the original doesn't really cut it. I've also heard some people say the same for Catcher in the Rye, but I'm not having that. Salinger's novel is as relevant today as it ever was. And as long as there are kids falling through the cracks of the education system, it will continue to speak to generations.

1984 is another dated "classic." A scathing and terrifyingly inaccurate notion of a distopian future circa 1930. While I love old ideas of what the future holds (Metropolis, The Jetsons etc...), they don't hold up well in the common consciousness. I have no idea why 1984 is considered a classic novel. Animal Farm, sure. 1984? Never.

I suppose Orwell had all the reason in the world to believe that the world would turn out that way given the direction things were heading at the time of his writing 1984, but the book has not dated well. Turns out that Orwell's vision of the future has not come to pass and when I read 1984 in high school (in 1993, by the way) I was astute enough to tell my then English teacher, Mr. Switzer, that the book had long since passed its expiration date. Aldous Huxley was far closer to the mark with his idea of a world brimming with pleasurable distractions (Brave New World).

I guess you just had to be there?

The entire genre of colonial literature is another example of books I suspect would have been more poignant if I had grown up in that particular social environment. Since very few people of European and North American descent under the age of 65 still hold to the tenants of the "white man's burden," it is extremely hard for younger readers to connect with novels such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness or George Orwell's (Again! What gives, George?) Burmese Days. Most people simply don't see Africa and Asia in that same light.

This goes for V.S. Naipaul's Booker Prize Winning (1971) novel In a Free State which deals primarily with two acquaintances driving across a nameless African state (most likely Uganda or Rwanda) on the verge of a military coup against the Western-supported king. The vast majority of the story consists of conversations between these two characters, an aging colonel and an African named Peter, all of which deals with the the dying days of imperialism.

While certainly the problems that came with colonialism have not simply disappeared in Africa, the Middle East or Asia and certainly western country's have not simple "butted out" of their respective business, many of the attitudes of average Western people (especially among ex-pats living in said countries) has radically changed. Cultural relativism has replaced old colonial values among many Europeans and North American's living abroad. It seemed a little absurd to read a novel that was personifying the struggle between these two viewpoints.

But I'm no social or cultural anthropologist, so I'm not really interested in waxing intellectual on colonialism vs. cultural relativism. I am, however, a North American living (permenantly) in an Asian country I feel as though I have a valid opinion. Naipaul's novel seems as though it would have been a bombastic novel of vital importance when it was published in 1971 amid the burgeonining independence of dozens of states around the world but reading it today it seems to have lost it's cultural imortance, unless of course you are reading it as a piece of historical curiosity.

If so, it's worth a look, otherwise, In A Free State is, like so many other novels of their particular place and time, out of place in 2011.


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