In A Free State - 1971


In A Free State has proven to be another book to which readers respond viscerally as can be seen in this essay. It is his representations of Africa in the final story that draw the most ire. Interestingly such responses have not been generated by critics from the African continent as illustrated by this column in a Rwandan daily shows. As Neel Mukherjee notes in an essay published in February 2018 the form that the book takes is as interesting as the stories themselves. Mukherjee’s work has been compared to this novel, a fact he is happy to discuss.

Paula Morgan, in her essay on “Tell Me Who to Kill” titled “Naipaulian Mothers and Motherlands” published in Seepersad and Sons: Naipaulian Synergies, edited by J. Vijay Maharaj, discusses the “correlations between male impotence, paradoxical evocations of mothers, and the alien and alienating family locations of male protagonists” that are “at the root of Naipaulian angst” about “broken historical origins, gaping deficiencies in mothering and early ejection from nurturing womb spaces.” Morgan in her essay titled “Consorting with Kali: Migration and Identity in Naipaul’s ‘One out of Many’” conjectures that “identity is first mirrored by community and only subsequently appropriated by an individual.” Nivedita Misra in her essay “From Tramp to Traveller: Mirrors of Immigrant Experiences in In a Free State” argues for the centrality of the mirror in reading through the immigrant experiences of the writer, an Indian, a West Indian and an English couple.


Controversy has been a feature of the response to the novel from the time it was published as a 1975 essay by Naipaul critic John Thieme shows. Farrukh Dhondy in his review said, “V S Naipaul is to the literary tradition of English, what Miss Jamaica is to the world of beauty contests” (2549). Dhondy quotes Naipaul’s lines on the characters from a Chinese circus in the epilogue to conclude that Naipaul has exposed “the inadequacy of the tradition he has espoused” (2550). Sushma Kumar in a rebuttal quotes the same lines to say that “the Chinese more than other groups, carry an enviable self-sufficiency. They hardly seem to suffer the pain of a cultural vacuum when transplanted” (1257).