- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2001

HALF A LIFE
By V.S. Naipaul
Knopf, $24, 211 pages

Earlier this month, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for literature. In conferring its award, the Swedish Academy acknowledged the author's "incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories."
"Half a Life," Mr. Naipaul's newest novel, is such a work, flush with passion and authority, its story centered on exile, third World despair, and postcolonial chaos. The book is at once a dazzling validation of the author's mastery of themes explored previously in "Guerillas " (1975) and "A Bend in the River" (1979), and is into the bargain a reminder that Mr. Naipaul has for a very long time possessed an understanding of the forces that numb populations into inertia or tilt them toward rage.
Like much of Mr. Naipaul's fiction preceding it, there is a great deal in this novel that is political and autobiographical. Graceful and relentlessly alert to life's ironies, its message is simple and particularly apt, if more than a little pessimistic: The postcolonial cultures of developing nations are incompatible with those of the modern world.
And just in case anyone were to miss that point, the ever-controversial author stirred the pot recently when he said in an interview that Islam's effect on the world was as "calamitous" as that of colonialism (reported in the Guardian).
V.S. Naipaul was born in Chaguanas, Trinidad in 1932. His parents were descended from Hindu immigrants from Northern India. He left Trinidad at 18 when he traveled to England to study at Oxford and settle there. After leaving Oxford, he began to produce radio programs for the British Broadcasting Corporation, and it was during this time that he started writing about his Caribbean experiences.
Mr. Naipaul has published more than 20 books of fiction and nonfiction that have presented searing portraits of India and the Caribbean and often managed to infuriate some segment of the population, usually of the fundamentalist stripe. Though his early fiction, such as "A House for Mr. Biswas" (1961), contained ample doses of light touches, his work grew darker over time.
"Half a LIfe" is ostensibly the coming-of-age story of Willie Somerset Chandran, the book's hapless hero. In its opening pages, we are given a brief history of Willie's father's life. Though the father is never named, readers learn that Willie was given his own distinguished moniker in honor of a celebrated writer (also not named, though we know it to be Somerset Maugham since his "A Razor's Edge" is identified) who visited India and became impressed with an Indian ascetic who had taken a vow of silence. The ascetic was Willie's father, a Hindu zealot who, following the suggestion of Mahatma Ghandi dropped out of university and vowed "to marry the lowest person I could find."
The elder's missteps and proclivities (he virtually stumbled into his role as holy man by series of goofy accidents and vanity) foreshadow the course the restless, rootless, slightly unhinged Willie will take as his own adult life gets underway. Willie's father married a woman of lower caste, "a backward" whom he finds repulsive. She became the mother of Willie and his sister, Sarojini, and the children paid a price. Because of their mixed parentage, they will remain pariahs, forever looked down upon by their Brahmin relatives and other members of the community.
Growing up, Willie finds himself in constant conflict with his father whom he, at turns, loathes and pities, and he makes a vow to go to Canada. The young man gets as far as London, where he decides to stay. It is the late 1950s and living on the bohemian fringe he experiences the terror and degradations of the Suez and the 1958 Notting Hill riots, but he also begins to pick up a knack for assuming the habits and manners of some of his well-off friends.
He dabbles in sex, establishes himself as a radio scriptwriter, and pines for other men's girlfriends and wives. And once again as with his days back in India struggling to keep his head above water as an immigrant in London, he remains an outsider, a victim of class and racial prejudice.
There are many parallels between Willie's life and the life of Mr. Naipaul immigration to England, the experience writing for the B.B.C. but one is reluctant to make too much of the comparison, chiefly because where Mr. Naipaul succeeds brilliantly, Willie's accomplishments are far more modest, where they exist at all.
But eventually Willie finds love, falling for Ana, a Portuguese woman who had been living in Africa. When they first kiss she remarks that his teeth need looking after. "They are spoiling your looks." This becomes the occasion for a riff about teeth dreams Willie's been having in which he loses his teeth. When he visits his dentist for comfort, he is told, "That wasn't a dream with a hidden meaning, I'm afraid. Your teeth really were going to fall out. Tartar like concrete. And horribly stained you must drink a lot of tea." For Willie, life is more of an unlucky nightmare than what his unconscious mind can conjure.
Tired of London he urges Ana to take him back with her to resettle in her home in Africa where he stays for the next 18 years, first faithful, then not, destined to face the end of the flawed, alluring Portuguese colonial culture that he has grown used to.
The African segment of the novel takes up fully a third of the book, and there is a feeling of uneasiness in its pages. The colonial culture is dying, a revolution looms, but people go forward in their day-to-day lives, sleepwalking, anxious, expecting the worst. In a telling scene the locals gather at the house of Carla Correia, a Portuguese expatriate, for a party:
"They even talked or Carla talked one Sunday of going to live in France. They had just been there, and they brought a bottle of famous French wine for the Sunday lunch. There was a half glass for everybody, and everybody sipped and said what nice wine it was though it was actually too acid… . And we who were not going to France sipped the acid wine like poison."
Not long after that Willie injures his leg on the slippery marble of his once grand house that is receding into a colonial icon of aging decadence, and he decides to return to England alone. He leaves Ana to her world and its fate and ventures forward, having renewed ties with his siter Sarojini who, formerly awkward, has abandoned her sari and blossomed into a political activist.
There is, to be sure, something wholly unsettling about the ending of the book. But where Mr. Naipaul's critics (notable among them Paul Theroux, his nemesis) have pounced on it to prove their claims that the book is slight, my experience of it was much different. At the juncture of middle age, half his life, Willie's emptiness and lack of direction is palpable. His fate, as Mr. Naipaul brilliantly portrays it, is wrenchingly true, and his world too hostile to bear. This book is a cautionary gem.

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