In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)26

The waiter, his face still tense with pleasure, showed the medal on his dirty striped jibbah. It had been turned out from a mould that had lost its sharpness; but the ill-defined face was no doubt Chinese and no doubt that of the leader. In the envelope were pretty coloured postcards of Chinese peonies.

Peonies, China! So many empires had come here. Not far from where we were was the colossus on whose shin the Emperor Hadrian had caused to be carved verses in praise of himself, to commemorate his visit. On the other bank, not far from the Winter Palace, was a stone with a rougher Roman inscription marking the southern limit of the Empire, defining an area of retreat. Now another, more remote empire was announcing itself. A medal, a postcard; and all that was asked in return was anger and a sense of injustice.

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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.

The air-conditioning in the coach didn’t work well; but that might have been because the two Negro attendants, still with the habits of the village, preferred to sit before the open doors to chat. Sand and dust blew in all day; it was hot until the sun set and everything went black against the red sky. In the dimly lit waiting-room of Cairo station there were more sprawled soldiers from Sinai, peasants in bulky woollen uniforms going back on leave to their villages. 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.

August 1969–October 1970

‘Above all else, I am a writer. I make books and want to please the reader, to stimulate, to create very rich books that will develop in the reader’s mind and echo as he reads along’

V. S. NAIPAUL

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Picador is proud to be reissuing over the next few years seventeen of V. S. Naipaul’s works beginning with his first comic masterpiece The Mystic Masseur.

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‘Britain’s greatest living writer. A prose stylist and thinker of unrivalled ambition and achievement’

Daily Telegraph

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‘The edgy exactitude of Naipaul’s writing is both effortlessly classical and yet at the same time brilliantly contemporary, as sharp and lucid as a spear of glass … He is inimitable, truly great and truly deserving of the Nobel’

Observer

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