The Company of Strangers

March 5, 2001

V.S. Naipaul, Half A Life, London: Picador, 2001.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

NaipaulIn a less than subtle reminder to the fiction reading public of the world, and in particular to a small reading group convened in Sweden, V.S.Naipaul’s new novel was published earlier this year with an editorial note that proclaimed: “He has won every major literary award bar the Nobel.”

Such audacious literary marketing reaped lavish reward in October 2001 when the great man received the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honour few people would begrudge Naipaul given the high quality of his work over more than four decades.  Although Naipaul had chosen not to write fiction for a number of years, preferring instead to produce non-fiction works of travel writing, cultural history and personal memoirs, he returned to fiction with Half A Life, and he returned triumphant.

Naipaul’s new novel begins in India in the 1930s, with the protagonist’s father reflecting back on his life of self-sacrifice and his brief moment of fame achieved through asceticism and a vow of silence – very attractive to loud and wealthy western tourists seeking a religious experience in the Orient.  The story moves with Willie Somerset Chandran to London in the ‘60s, where he takes a degree in a minor London college.  He studies little but he learns much.  He re-imagines his personal history to make himself more interesting to classmates and the faculty, presenting himself as the inheritor of an ancient minority tradition of Indian Christians rather than the son of a frustrated high-caste man who regrets his symbolic but loveless marriage to a low-caste woman.  In London little Willie (as his father ominously calls him) discovers sex in squalid tenements and bars.  He is shamefully confronted with his own deceptions and inadequacies: an inability to satisfy a woman is explained as the poor product of a culture of arranged marriage as opposed to practiced seduction.  He mixes with bohemians, BBC journalists and minor scoundrels, and creatively transforms Hollywood film scripts into “authentic” stories of post-colonial Indian village life.  The narration then bids farewell to London after Willie’s only book is published and he graduates with a teaching degree but no intention of working in a run-down suburb where he might be knifed in a race riot.  We travel with Willie and his new wife Ana to her farm in an unnamed Portuguese colony in Africa that sounds, smells and bleeds like Mozambique in the years climaxing in the end of colonisation and the flight of Europeans, mulattos and oddities like himself.

Half A Life is a novel of partial visions, prejudices and misapprehensions, with characters moving within and sometimes beyond barriers of caste, race and culture.  Playing roles, recasting identities, forging and leaving personal relationships of family, community and sex, Naipaul’s characters remain frustrated or uncertain.

Naipaul seems uncomfortable with, if not hostile to, political and religious movements.  His view is sceptical – a tone familiar to readers of Naipaul’s non-fiction works on culture and religion – and some of his characters in this novel are embittered, even jaundiced.  Naipaul and his protagonist are more concerned with the individual.  But the individuals in Half A Life, when focused on themselves and their emotional needs and characteristics, often appear self-indulgent, unaware of their partners’ feelings, or delusional.  For reasons varying from age, culture, sex, political ideology, and hope, they all lead half-lives.  Naipaul’s characters are judgmental, but rarely judge themselves with insight, and seldom treat others with compassion.  Willie Chandran – like his father – is unfulfilled.  But so too is Willie’s mother and, silently, Ana – who Willie deserts after eighteen years.  Perhaps we all lead half-lives: partial and unfulfilled.  Will winning the Nobel Prize make Naipaul’s life complete?

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