I promise that I will never buy abridged versions of novels. As a serious reader, usually I never do, and in my defense, the novel I bought just says Author's revised edition, and nothing much about the fact that it is a trimmed down version of the original Booker prize winning novel. Truth be told, my initial feeling after reading this in the preface was that it might not make much of a difference, but the moment I finished the book I felt a pang of incompleteness. Usually when I finish a book, I feel like I was part of a full story, but this one left me with a feeling that I am missing something, as if I don't have the complete picture.
In the preface, the author mentions that the story was initially conceived as a sequence about displacement, set in Africa. I love that concept - understanding people and their perspectives from a geo-political standpoint is quite interesting. 'In a free State' is the story of the two English characters in Africa, as the African state goes through a political turmoil, and how their lives change overnight. As an Indian who still shudders at the thought of British colonialism in India, it was good to study these English characters in the familiar terrain of African colonialism. But the more I looked at them closely, the more I realized that the repulsive regime also brought along some good human beings, people who love these places for what they are and want to serve them without expecting anything in return. That's what impressed me the most about Bobby's character in the novel. He even goes to the extend that he wants to be born a black in his next birth. He is indeed a true human being!
The novel depicts a 2-day (400 mile) car journey of Bobby and Linda, from the Capital to the King's Southern Collectorate where they live. But as always, the journey matters more than the destination. Their conversations and experiences on the way are endearing, offering the readers a unique window into their lives and perceptions about the situation in Africa. The whites are now a minority in Africa as the power shifted from the British to the Africans, and they now play more of a supportive role in helping the nation flourish. The story begins with the mention of the King (for whom both Bobby and Linda's husband works) losing his power as the President sends his army against the King's people. The result is utter chaos, with armies all around and helicopters flying low in search of the King who is on exile. It is a difficult situation to be in, especially to be the wrong person at the wrong place (as 'whites' working for the King!), and to add oil to the fire, they are out on the road fending for themselves, forced to face the turmoil head on!
The narrative is quite captivating and it endears you not just to the characters, but also to Africa, its landscape and beauty. The vivid imagery floats in front of your eyes as you become a co-passenger in their car seeing, hearing and experiencing every single thing that happens along the way. The narrative only breaks in one or two places, where the author intentionally omits the details, but otherwise, it's quite appealing! The conversations of the characters give readers some perspective on the life in Africa from the eyes of foreigners. You become so involved in their lives that you feel saddened at their helplessness towards the end, and it will definitely hurt you to see Bobby getting beaten up almost to death. To me, the novel truly portrays the power of words - on the one hand, it overjoys your heart with the powerful descriptions of the African landscapes and people, while on the other, it dampens your eyes with sympathy and pity. One might think that this is a story of the whites living in Africa and that only they get hurt in the ensuing turmoil, but the fact is that due to rampant tribalism, the Africans themselves were being treated like animals. The below description truly left me with a heavy heart:
Then they saw the prisoners. They were sitting on the ground; some were prostrate; most were naked. It was their nakedness that had camouflaged them in the sun-and-shade about the shrubs, small trees and lorries. Bright eyes were alive in black flesh; but there was little movement among the prisoners. They were the slender, small-boned, very black people of the king's tribe, a clothed people, builders of roads. But such dignity as they had possessed in freedom had already gone; they were only forest people now, in the hands of their enemies. Some were roped up in the traditional forest way, neck to neck, in groups of three or four, as though for delivery to the slave-merchant. All showed the liver-colored marks of blood and beatings. One or two looked dead.
As you can imagine from the above narrative, it's difficult to remove yourself from the story until you finish it.
However, like I said, the incompleteness of the story still haunts me. That's exactly why I hate reading short stories. I have tried reading a lot of short stories, including Jhumpa Lahiri's, but every time a story ends, it leaves you in the middle of nowhere forcing your imagination to go wild! That's partly the case with this novel as well. In just two days worth of narrative, it is impossible to understand the characters fully - their personalities and the context; it just gives you a sneak-peek into their lives, piques your imagination and then leaves you wanting for more! As a typical Indian with a high-context mentality, I felt that it is difficult to get a complete picture of their thinking and perspective from such a short narrative.
The novel is interspersed with conversations between Bobby and Linda, but crippled with lack of background information, I found it difficult to judge the ingenuity of those conversations. However, I discount it considering that reading the original version would help me quell this problem.
In short, this novel is a must read for all aspiring writers. The author's innate ability to paint a vivid imagery to capture audiences' imaginations clearly comes through. That, coupled with its historic significance, makes it a real gem. I was definitely sad that it got over so quickly and after reading the book, I am sure you would feel the same!