Recommended by my mom who thought it was great. The 3 stars is really provisional here. I feel I need to think about the stories more. I started reading the book a second time right after finishing it so I could maybe get a better grasp. I also read the reviews here and some other places on the web.
The prologue: I really liked this part. I felt Naipaul did a great job giving the feel of the place and the dynamics among the people. I felt I could relate to the tramp, as well as to the viewpoint of the narrator. The boat is full of a very international mix of people and it's interesting how easily people establish a sort of society. The tramp is just very disconnected from everybody, but is also probably borderline mentally ill. It's unclear specifically what he did during the night to disturb the rest of his cabin mates. The Yugoslav is an instance of a loner (for whatever reason) that doesn't stick out the way the tramp does. I thought it was interesting that everybody has a very sharp national identity except for the tramp who might be English and the narrator who is undefined. Also why is the tramp English? The English who till recently have been so powerful in the world and as a major colonial power a bully. It's also interesting that when the tramp lists where he's been, the places except for Egypt are English speaking. It's obviously a story about the cruelty of people to someone who disturbs them. There's a general lack of sympathy, many people just coming to watch them mess with him. The narrator himself says that he's afraid to get involved with the tramp. Maybe it's about a loss of privelige. The tramp is old and maybe used to a certain kind of world order that is passing. These people don't respect his Englishness. I don't know, probably worth some more thought.
One Out of Many: I think in some ways this was the easiest story to read, but I really didn't respect it much. I felt the whole character of Santos was overdone in his absurd naïveté. I felt it was just an exaggerated characture of an Indian immigrant. One point that really stuck out was when Priya shows him a room and there's this really dumb misunderstanding about whether he was being offered the cupboard or the room. I just felt that "joke" is so old I really felt strange that Naipaul actually used it. The same thing with the "weed". I felt that was another very cliched joke. The story wasn't all bad and there were some interesting things about the emotions Santos goes through after he leaves his first employer. I also thought the ending was interesting but on the whole I didn't really find Santos' character to be very believable. I think that despite the fact that the ending isn't a feel good ending, still wasn't really convincing and I don't really feel I understand what Santos is saying there as part of an evolving character.
Tell me who to kill: this one is tough. It is hard to read because it is so negative. I think it's well written just because of how effectively it communicates those feelings. It's hard to say who to blame. Obviously he has a rough life, but he also seems to take everything so hard. He seems trapped by the bleakness of his choices but also by his own mind. In some ways there doesn't seem to be much to take out of it except the desperation of some lives. One major point I don't get is just what the thread about visiting the college friend who get's a knife stuck in him is. Is it a dream, a vision, or real? It doesn't make much sense to me as real, but not sure how to understand it beyond that. I feel that more could be said about all the stuff that goes on with the narrator but somehow not quite sure how to do it myself.
In a Free State: this one is also difficult to read due to the unpleasantness of feelings aroused. In terms of writing I thought this was the best of the pieces. The description of the landscapes that they pass through was great. The dialogue was very interesting but also difficult. I felt that the dialogue was disjointed. I don't mean that as a criticism because I think it was intentional and effectively communicated the feeling that these two were talking to each other with somewhat cross purposes. There is an interesting sense on the one hand that they are both part of a fairly small world and so some of that disjointed feeling comes from the fact that they share this context and so that common experience fills in some of the gaps. On the other hand that disjointedness also expresses that they are somewhat in conflict in terms of their views. So when one person says something, the other will reply in a way that goes off in another direction. At one point Linda talks about a conversation as a chess game and in some ways that seems to fit how the two are relating to each other. They are both playing this game of being provocative within the constraints of their etiquette. I think another level of complexity in the dialogue was the psychological dimension. That is, as the reader we are learning more about the character or psychology of the two as the story unfolds. So there's the sense in which the dialogue and the responses they have to what is said is revealing their self deceptions as well as their more conscious commitments.
Obviously, there is also a big social dimension to what takes place. The two main characters are finding a place, Bobby feels quite committed to Africa, while Linda seems to see herself as more of a visitor, Africa as more incidental as setting for her adventures. On the other hand there is the actual political situation. The post colonial scene. Two tribes fighting for control of a country that only really exists as a colonial structure. I think I had more trouble understanding this dimension of the story. I felt I was able to key into Bobby and Linda's psychology to a decent degree particularly after the second reading, but still feel vague about the social commentary. I'm not sure what the significance of the journey itself is, nor many of the incidents along the way.
So I guess my 3 star rating is due to a mix of factors. The writing particularly in the title piece is great, but the subjective experience wasn't really pleasant due to the unpleasant feelings roused by much of the book, and the sense that I don't understand the book particularly the title piece as well as could be hoped.