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Half a Life - V.S. Naipaul
Member Name: beoram
Half a Life - V.S. Naipaul
Date: 16/11/01, updated on 16/11/01 (160 review reads)
Advantages: masterful writing , attention to detail
HALF A LIFE is the latest novel of the Trinidadian author V.S. Naipaul, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for works that ‘compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories’. (Naipaul was quoted as being surprised and honoured at receiving the prize, saying that ‘it is a great tribute to England, my home, and to India, home of my ancestors’ [while neglecting mention of Trinidad, his birthplace]). Naipaul also received the Booker Prize in 1971 for his book IN A FREE STATE, amongst other awards. As in many of his other novels, HALF A LIFE draws heavily from Naipaul’s personal experiences, in particular his experience as a Trinidadian Indian immigrating to the old imperial centre, London, in the 1950’s.
One might divide HALF A LIFE into four sections: the first being the story of the protagonist’s father, the second as the experiences of the protagonist, Willie Chandran, in India and his early experiences at university in London, the third the protagonist’s latter experiences and successes in London and the final section is Chandran’s life in an African nation in the last throes of colonialism.
The novel opens thus:
‘Willie Chandran asked his father one, “Why is my middle name Somerset? The boys at school have just found out, and they are mocking me.”
His father said without joy, “You were named after a great English writer. I am sure you have seen his books about the house.”
“But I haven’t read them. Did you admire him so much?”
“I am not sure. Listen, and make up your own mind.”
And this was the story Willie Chandran’s father began to tell. It took a long time. The story changed as Willie grew up. Things were added, and by the time Willie left India to go to England this was the story he had heard…’
The remainder of the first section is told in the fi
rst person (Naipaul slips seamlessly from third to first person a number of times in the novel – I didn’t even notice the transition at first). The father begins by telling how he became the model for a character in Somerset Maugham’s novel THE RAZOR’S EDGE, the indirect result of heeding the call of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s call for ‘sacrifice’ compels the father to sacrifice in the only way he feels he can – by turning his back on his high-caste Brahmin heritage and marrying a ‘tribal’, low-caste woman. This ill-fated union causes the father much regret and resentment, as do the children that issue from it. Here again we can see Naipaul’s masterful and fascinating painting of familial relations, although this element plays a much smaller role than it does in his lengthier (and excellent) novel A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS (in part a fictionalised biography of Naipaul’s father). The father’s idea of ‘sacrifice’ ends up creating much bitterness in his wife, his son and himself.
The second section of the novel begins the development of the protagonist, Willie Chandran (in the third person). Willie’s ‘difficult’ home-life impels him to begin to re-invent himself (and his family), first in his English composition class, for which his writes about himself as being part of a happy Canadian family, which goes to the beach for its holidays. Willie’s re-invention continues through-out the novel, and seems to be part of the notion of ‘half a life’, to which the title refers. Willie is often uncomfortable around other people as a result of this re-invention and his apparent inability to ‘live fully’ also stems partially from this ‘rewriting of his self’.
Willie’s father is later able to gain him a scholarship to university in London, where his begins rewriting his identity. One detail he re-invents is—ra
ther than his father being a Brahmin and a mother a member of a ‘backwards’ caste, half-educated at a Christian missionary school—that he is a Christian Indian belonging to an ancient Christian community in India (there do indeed exist such communities in India). In fact, he is actually commissioned to do a piece on India’s ‘old’ Christian communities versus its newer ‘missionary’ Christian communities for the BBC [here is another autobiographic fact, that Naipaul worked for the BBC during his early years in London]. Through his work with the BBC and through his university, Willie meets other people whose life stories echo his own woes of mixed birth and ethnic/cultural ‘displacement’. One such person is Percy Cato, a Jamaican of mixed parentage (Indian, African, European) who is not, strictly-speaking, Jamaican, as he was born and bred in Panama (‘I am the only black man or Jamaican or West Indian you’ll meet in England who knows nothing about cricket.’). Percy also re-invents his past, making his father a literate clerk in Panama rather than a heavy-labourer. Another is Marcus, the son of a [black] West Indian who went to live in West Africa as part of the Back to Africa movement, whose fondest desire is to have grandchildren who look completely white (claiming that ‘the Negro gene is recessive’), and whose second greatest desire to be the first black man to have an account at Coutts, the Queen’s bank (though it is not clear that they don’t already have black clients…).
Willie struggles in London, attending bohemian parties, and is frustrated both with trying to write a book and to overcome self-doubt in his sexual adventures (had mainly with the girl-friends of his friends). He is finally ‘rescued’ from his careening despair by Ana, one of the erstwhile fans of his poorly-received sole publication. Ana is another ‘mestizo’,
of mixed Portuguese and African blood. Willie clings to Ana, eventually following her back to her unnamed Africa homeland [very probably Mozambique] to live for eighteen years on her father’s crumbling estate. One day he slips on their marble stairs and after waking up in a military hospital tells Ana that, ‘I am going to leave you…I can’t live your life any more. I want to live my own.’
The final section of the novel is told once again in the first person, by Willie to his sister (who has married a German), of his life in Africa with Ana. They live in an estate manor, socialising almost only with other ‘mixed breeds’, Portuguese ‘tainted’ with African blood, who are accepted as second-class citizen by the pure Portuguese colonists during the colonial government (and again are not accepted by the ‘native’ post-colonial regime). The re-occurrence of persons of mixed blood is another of the ‘halves’ of HALF A LIFE. Willie begins frequenting African prostitutes, even though they do not really satisfy him, until he meets Graša, with whom he begins to have an undisguised affair. Willie thinks at first that during his time with Graša that he is truly living, but his despair is never far from him.
Willie’s sexual encounters, both in London and in Africa, are narrated with an unusual frankness. But they are far from being erotic, titillating descriptions, rather they are written with a hard and weary honesty – somewhat reminiscent of the tone of some of J.M. Coetzee’s work (particularly of his 1999 Booker-Award winning novel DISGRACE).
Despite his neglecting to mention Trinidad on receiving his Nobel Prize, Naipaul has written some excellent books which give a lively and colourful picture of Trinidad—if you like HALF A LIFE, I recommend (of his Trinidad volumes) A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS (a longish novel mentioned earlier) and THE SUFFRAGE OF ELVI
RA (a short novel). If you enjoy the Africa section of the book, I also recommend his novel A BEND IN THE RIVER, which chronicles the life of an Indian shopkeeper in an Africa village as the country undergoes a revolution.
Don’t read HALF A LIFE expecting a facile story of man whose struggles with his inheritance and identity before achieving a happy acceptance of ‘who he really is’. ‘Everything goes on a bias,’ Willie observes, ‘The world should stop, but it goes on.’ It is an intimate and direct account of the bitter ironies and despair of a half-borrowed life.
Naipaul paints a starkly realistic portrait of what it is to be someone who staunchly refuses to accept what he has been given to be, who tries to take on the identity of what he feels he should be and thus lives but ‘half a life’.