In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul

★★★★☆ (4/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

The Tramp at Piraeus ★★★☆☆

  • Greek civility was something we had left on shore; it belonged perhaps to idleness, unemployment and pastoral despair.
  • But what’s nationality these days? I myself, I think of myself as a citizen of the world.
  • His speech was like this, full of dates, places and numbers, with sometimes a simple opinion drawn from another life. But it was mechanical, without conviction; even the vanity made no impression; those quivering wet eyes remained distant.

One Out of Money ★★★★☆

  • Those evening chats on the pavement, those morning walks: happy times, but they were like the happy times of childhood: I didn’t want them to return.
  • ‘Like me. They have a saying here. If you can’t beat them, join them. I joined them. They are still beating me.’ He sighed and spread his arms on the top of the red wall-seat. ‘Ah, Santosh, why do we do it? Why don’t we renounce and go and meditate on the riverbank?’ He waved about the room. ‘The yemblems of the world, Santosh. Just yemblems.’
  • I liked to feel I had to do things perfectly; I felt I was earning my freedom. Though I was in hiding, and though I worked every day until midnight, I felt I was much more in charge of myself than I had ever been.
  • And it was strange, I thought, that sorrow lasts and can make a man look forward to death, but the mood of victory fills a moment and then is over.
  • I was once part of the flow, never thinking of myself as a presence. Then I looked in the mirror and decided to be free. All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over.

Tell Me Who to Kill ★★★★★

  • Just like my brother. He choose a bad morning to get married. Cold and wet, the little country parts between towns white rather than green, mist falling like rain, fields soaking, sometimes a cow standing up just like that. The little streams have a dirty milky colour and some of them are full of empty tins and other rubbish. Water everywhere, just like back home after a heavy shower in the rainy season, only the sky is not showing in the places where the water collect, and the sun is not coming out to heat up everything and steam it dry fast.
  • Then that pass, and it is town again, and town again, and then the whole place is like one big town, everything brown, everything of brick or iron or rusty galvanize, like a big wet rubbish dump. And my heart drop and my stomach feel small.
  • For the rich and the professional the world is not ordinary. I know, I see them. Where you build a hut, they build a mansion; where you have mud and a para-grass field, they have a garden; when you kill time on a Sunday, they have parties. We all come out of the same pot, but some people move ahead and some people get left behind. Some people get left behind so far they don’t know and they stop caring.
  • He feel he win. He do nothing; he just wait and win. But I remember my own hate, the hate that make me sick, and I feel I kill all of them.
  • The mystery land is theirs, the stranger is you. None of those houses in the rain there belong to you. You can’t see yourself walking down those streets set down so flat on that cliff. But that is where you have to go, and as soon as everybody get down in the launch with their luggage the ship hoot. It is white and big and safe, it is saying goodbye, it is in a hurry to get away and to leave you behind. The Technicolor is over, the picture change. Now is only noise and rush and luggage, train and traffic. This is it, and already you are like a man in blinkers.
  • But it is so when you get too happy. You forget too much. That hundred pounds make me forget myself. It give me ideas. It make me forget why I am in London. I want to feel more than safe now. I want to see that money grow, I want to see the clerks writing in my book in their different handwriting every week.
  • How a man could fool himself like that? Look at these streets now. Look at these things and people I never did see. They have their life too; the city is theirs. I don’t know where I thought I was, behaving as though the city was a ghost city, working by itself, and that it is something I discover by myself. Frank will never understand. He will never see the city I see; he will never understand how I work like that.
  • He is my friend, the only friend I have. I alone know how much he help me, from how far he bring me back. But he is digging me all the time because he prefer to see me weak. He like opening up manholes for me to fall in; he is anxious to push me down in the darkness.
  • They only dress up and come to make trouble. Sometimes they eat and don’t pay; sometimes they mash up plates and glasses and bend the cudery. That become like their hobby, a lot of them against me alone. That is their bravery and education. And nobody on my side.
  • But these people come for the day; they are happy, they have buses to take them back to their hotels; they have countries to go back to, they have houses. The sadness I feel make my heart seize.
  • But it is different tonight. I am fighting for nothing here. They are provoking me. But they give me strength. Samson get back his hair, he is strong. Nothing can touch him. He is going back on the ship, and no matter how black the water is at night, in the morning it will be blue. Just for a little bit more he must be strong, and he will leave. He will go away and let the dust fall and the rats come.
  • Frank touch me on the arm. I am glad he touch me, but I shrug his hand away. I know it isn’t true, but I tell myself he is on the other side, with those others, looking at me without looking at me. I know it isn’t true about Frank because, look, he too is nervous. He want to be alone with me; he don’t like being with his own people. It isn’t like being on a bus or in a cafe, where he can be like a man saying: I protect this man with me. It is different here outside the church, with the two of us standing on the pavement on one side, and the other sad people standing on another side, the sun red like an orange, the trees hardly throwing a shadow, the grass wild all around the brick church.
  • I love them. They take my money, they spoil my life, they separate us. But you can’t kill them. O God, show me the enemy. Once you find out who the enemy is, you can kill him. But these people here they confuse me, who hurt me? Who spoil my life? Tell me who to beat back. I work four years to save my money, I work like a donkey night and day. My brother was to be the educated one, the nice one. And this is how it is ending, in this room, eating with these people. Tell me who to kill.

In a Free State ★☆☆☆☆

  • Africa here was decor. Glamour for the white visitor and expatriate; glamour too for the African, the man flushed out from
  • the bush, to whom, in the city, with independence, civilization appeared to have been granted complete. It was still a colonial city, with a colonial glamour. Everyone in it was far from home.
  • And the cloth cap was like part of his elusiveness. The cap made the Zulu appear now as a dandy, now as an exploited labourer from the South African mines, now as an American minstrel, and sometimes even as the revolutionary he had told Bobby he was.
  • At night in every suburb the bush began there, on the highway. Every week men of the forest came to settle in the usurped city. They brought only the skills of the forest; they found no room; and at night they prowled the city’s
  • unenclosed spaces.
  • ‘I always felt I should be enjoying myself, but I never seemed to. The day would go on and on, and I could never find much to do. The summer always made me feel I was missing a lot. I preferred the autumn. I was much more in control then. To me autumn is the great season of renewal. All very girlish, I’m sure.’
  • ‘There’s a splendid thing I read by Somerset Maugham somewhere. He’s not much admired now, I know. But he said that if you wanted only the best and held out for it, really held out, you usually got it. I must say I’ve begun to feel like that. I feel we can always do what we really want to do.’
  • When I was a girl lapping up my Somerset Maugham and learning about the great world I never dreamt that so much of my married life would have been spent anguishing about things like “terms of service”.
  • Bobby and Linda were enclosed by green; the highway was hidden. Not far ahead of them a line of trees, some white and leafless, marked the course of a stream. Beyond that the land sloped up again, parkland. ‘Like England,’ Linda said. ‘Or Africa.’
  • The pullover, rough with little burrs of dirt, fitted; and the shirt, oily and black around the collar, with two or three old tidemarks of sweat, was like a second skin.
  • It was a face as plain as the president’s in the photograph, showing age alone rather than a quality of experience. Liveliness and emotion lay only in the eyes.
  • The wood of a fairy-tale, far from home: what was so recently man-made, after the forests had been cut down and the forest-dwellers flushed out and dismissed, what had perhaps been intended only as an effect of art in a landscape made secure, had become natural. It spoke of an absence of men, danger. Bobby thought of the king, hunted from the sky. He looked up.
  • Carter said, ‘You colonialists did pretty well.’ ‘What a lovely word,’ Linda said. ‘One so seldom hears it in conversation. You make it sound very big and technical.’
  • The car bumped and bumped. The trees dripped. Through black overhanging leaves they had a glimpse beyond far peaks of a small mountain lake, grey, like the sky. A roadside jacaranda had freshly shed its purple flowers, a brushing of delicate colour on the rock and mud of the road: they went over it.
  • This resort hadn’t been built for tourists in Africa; it had been created by people who thought they had come to Africa to stay, and looked in a resort for a version of the things of home: a park, a pier, a waterside promenade. Now, after the troubles across the lake, after independence and the property scare, after the army mutiny, after the white exodus South and the Asian deportations, after all these deaths, the resort no longer had a function.
  • He was in a car with a woman whose identity he couldn’t be sure of. They were quarrelling. Everything she said was accurate; everything was wounding; and though to everything there was a reply, he couldn’t explain himself. He had to shout above her shouts; he was screaming; and as they sped along the empty road, dangerously, the wheel jumping in his hands, she wounded him and wounded him, more and more deeply; and there was rage and ache in his head, which seemed about to explode. He was no longer in the car. He was standing beside a table in a room full of people and chatter; and his exploding head made him collapse and stretch out right there, before them, on the floor.

The Circus at Luxor ★★☆☆☆

  • Perhaps that had been the only pure time, at the beginning, when the ancient artist, knowing no other land, had learned to look at his own and had seen it as complete. But it was hard, travelling back to Cairo, looking with my stranger’s eye at the fields and the people who worked in them, the dusty towns, the agitated peasant crowds at railway stations, it was hard to believe that there had been such innocence. Perhaps that vision of the land, in which the Nile was only water, a blue-green chevron, had always been a fabrication, a cause for yearning, something for the tomb.
  • 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.

 

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