Naipaul was no doubt delighted last month to discover the Nobel bladders temporarily empty, when the committee phoned him at his home in England to award him the million-dollar annual prize, “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.” Speculation immediately brewed over whether the citation meant to acclaim the writer’s anti-Muslim travelogues, or his novels and stories, which have dealt with colonial subjects in times of indigence, pathos and humor. Naipaul’s most recent travel book, Beyond Belief, detailed how nations that had converted to the Muslim faith—and suppressed their own traditions—had ravaged their own cultures. His best (and funniest) novel, A House for Mister Biswas, tells how an Indian-Trinidadian ascends from the pathetic life of a schlemiel to limited success as a newspaperman in colonial Port-of-Spain.
Naipaul’s latest novel, the thin, peculiar and effective Half a Life, goes some distance toward showing that the two spheres represented by his travelogues and his fiction are, for Naipaul, hardly separate. Half a Life’s protagonist, Willie Somerset Chandran, undergoes a series of life changes and geographic moves that illuminate how the colonial condition makes its subjects bury their own pasts, both personal and collective, as they adjust themselves to their native, colonial and adoptive homelands.
The narrative, broken into three thinly-connected chapters, begins with an explanation of Willie’s name. His Brahmin father narrates the twisted trajectory of his own adolescent rebellion in India. To spite his family and his caste, Willie’s father becomes a sadhu, or ascetic holy man. By chance, the English writer W. Somerset Maugham meets him while researching The Razor’s Edge. Maugham’s influence on Willie’s father is strong enough that, once a proper wife is found, the son gets Maugham’s first and middle names. The wife—Willie’s mother—is ugly, hideous and low-caste, another way in which his father debases himself and spites his family:
She was small and coarse-featured. Her very dark top lip slipped slowly—with the wetness of a snail, I thought—over her big white teeth. For the first time I saw that she used powder. It made the black skin matte, and you could see where the powder ended and the shiny skin showed again. I was repelled, ashamed, moved.
“I despise you,” Willie tells his father.
The next section follows Willie to the West. He aims for Canada, home country of the missionaries who educated him in India. He ends up in England, where he studies, struggles to overcome his sexual awkwardness, and eventually begins a career as an unrecognized writer and BBC script-man. Ultimately, his efforts at fiction are little more than transparent cribbing of Hollywood stories, redone to fit Indian contexts.
A fan letter from Ana, a Portuguese-African colonial subject, leads Willie into a relationship with the woman in her home country, a colony modeled on Mozambique. Willie stays there some 18 years, during which he never quite blends into the lives of either the Africans or the Portuguese. He has a sordid affair with Graça, a married woman equally hot for him. Meanwhile, anti-colonialist guerrillas edge closer to independence and toward forcing cultural hybrids like Ana and Willie to choose sides.
The “half a life” of the title refers, most obviously, to the 40-odd years of Willie’s life described in the novel. On a more figurative level, it refers to the bisected personality of Willie as he goes from country to country, life to life. In India, in England and in Mozambique, he feels neurotic tugs on his sense of identity, and as a result nowhere do his friends and lovers see more than half of the person whom they know. In India, Willie yearns for Canada and an escape from his father’s India. In England, he can never elude his Indian background, try as he might to shed it. And in Mozambique, he lives the life of a perpetual guest, a longtime stranger whose intimacy with his neighbors is limited by his multiethnic past. The red thread of the narrative—which varies subtly in style and voice, as well as location—is Willie’s inner self, the half a life that remains constant inside, while the outer layer varies to suit its setting and audience.
These themes have been treated elsewhere—most flamboyantly, by Salman Rushdie in East, West and The Satanic Verses. In Naipaul’s younger days, he had a sense of humor as sharp as Rushdie’s, but always muted by wry restraint. By now this restraint has entirely choked away the humor in Naipaul’s fiction, as well as much of the dark gravity that made Naipaul’s post-comic fiction so attractive. The final section, with its political uncertainty and sense of alienation, faintly resembles a low-key A Bend in the River. And even the very frank sexuality, which has been absent in some of Naipaul’s other work, manages not to smoulder in the slightest. This dampening of emotion is surely deliberate, and it makes Half a Life at once more sublime and less enjoyable than Naipaul’s previous works, fiction and nonfiction. Nevertheless, in the category of writers who have examined the colonial condition as a worldwide phenomenon, Naipaul stands almost alone for his quality and seriousness. Next year the Swedish Academy’s honoree will have a tough act to follow, and the literary world may have to break out its umbrellas yet again.
HALF A LIFE
by V.S. Naipul
211 pp., $24