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The opening of In a free state, a novel by V S Naipul

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Though many of poets and authors are purged by a notion to do something about the world’s dire conditions that they write about, they don’t. They complain and rave about in their texts, bringing out the morbid atmosphere of the place, but they know that owe their inspiration to those very conditions; without them, the stimulation to narrate powerful texts such as the tramp at Piraeus could have never arisen. V. S. Naipaul illustrates his journey from Piraeus to Alexandria in a morose tone and gloomy language.

Most texts written about a journey have elaborate details about its natural surroundings, but this extract indulges more into the ‘dingy’ steamer itself and its passengers. He takes an insight into understanding his fellow passengers, especially the tramp. Using these techniques, V. S. Naipaul has produced an influential and forlorn text. The text is written from the view of the first person, allowing the reader to feel more involved with the text – “as soon as I saw the dingy little Greek Steamer I felt I ought to have made other arrangements”.

We see the whole journey from his point of view, thus our views of the situation and characters are based solely on his opinion. This personal approach lets the reader indulge into the extract on a more personal level. The narrator seems to be a wealthy person, hence being able to get tickets on the upper part of the ship, and this allows the situation to be seen through the critical eye of the middle/upper class; “We on the upper… on the lower deck didn’t” Naipaul creates a melancholic, moody and suffocating atmosphere, using despondent words to describe the situation and characters: ‘subdued’, ‘humped’, ‘tremulous’, ‘ruin’.

This allows the reader to actually experience what the narrator feels as he views the conditions and the characters. Naipaul doesn’t give us a pleasant illustration of the characters. He says that “Greek civility was something we had left on the shore; it belonged perhaps to the idleness, unemployment and pastoral despair. ” This is an ironic statement, as one would expect rudeness to stem from the squatter conditions, certainly not civility. Perhaps Naipaul is reflecting on the claustrophobic atmosphere of the steamer, which ‘even from the quay looked overcrowded, like a refugee ship’.

Such conditions would inevitably cause irritation, resulting in a moody barman and a moody steward. Naipaul seems to be painting a picture of characters with fragmented roots: they do not really belong anywhere. The passengers on the lower deck ‘required only sleeping room’ as they sheltered from the wind, ‘humped figures in Mediterranean black among the winches and orange-coloured bulkheads’. The ‘overgrown American school children’ are ‘subdued’; school children are usually described as being full of energy, rarely subdued.

Being in a social culture which is almost alien to their own might cause the controlled behavior from the children. The tramp is the most obvious and alarming character with the lack of cultural ties. He ‘seems’ English, but only from afar. He claims to have traveled all around the world, but then he asks “But what’s nationality these days? I myself, I think of myself as a citizen of the world”, accentuating his lack of cultural roots. Naipaul explores the idea of appearance versus reality, especially through the tramp. ‘From a distance he didn’t look like a tramp.

The hat and the rucksack, the lovat tweed jacket, the grey flannels and the boots might have belonged to a romantic wanderer of an earlier generation; in that rucksack there might have been a book of verse, a journal, the beginnings of a novel. ‘ Naipaul lets his imagination run wild as he sees the tramp from a distance, forming a different completely different opinion as to when he gets a closer look of him – ” But when he came nearer we saw that all his clothes were in ruin, that the knot on his scarf was tight and grimy; that he was a tramp”.

Naipaul’s view reflects the way people view others: we tend to judge people from appearances, like Naipaul did the tramp from afar, and it is usually a completely different picture from the one with you would derive with when you actually get ‘closer’ to the person, getting to know them better, like Naipaul when he got a closer look at the tramp. Naipaul seems to have a rather ridiculing opinion of the tramp: ‘He raced up the gangway, not using the hang ropes. Vanity! ‘ He himself judges the tramp by his appearance. Naipaul attaches a kind of sorrow to the tramp. He has no belonging, so he becomes someone that he imagines himself to be.

He tries to be stylish, with his walk and his knowing attitude. He wisely chooses a Yugoslav who has never left his country before to listen to his tales, suggesting that the tramp has had much practice in choosing people who look nervous and who won’t question his stories. He tells the Yugoslav about his journeys around the world, “I’ve been….. the Australians”. The liability of what the tramp says is extremely questionable. He seems to be living out his fantasies through these illustrations, going to places that he has never been to through his imaginative conversation to the Yugoslav.

Despite his convincing words, the tramp seems to remain unfulfilled; ‘it was mechanical, without conviction, even the vanity made no impression; those quivering wet eyes remained distant’. The tramp seems almost lost, with no roots, and no where to go to. Naipaul explores the steamer through the overwhelming number of passengers that it carries. He seems to look at the people in a cynical way, bringing out the morbid feelings that the steamer invokes. The most memorable character in the extract is certainly the tramp, who Naipaul both mocks and has compassion towards.

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