Half a Life – V. S. Naipaul

The publication of V.S. Naipaul’s Half a Life coincides with the greatest literary honor of the author’s career. After successive disappointments, Naipaul was finally awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. Coinciding with this major event as it does, Half a Life becomes involved in questions that are beyond its individual scope. What has been Naipaul’s contribution to world literature, and does this new novel advance that contribution in any way? Does Half a Life represent a retreading of old ground for Naipaul, or a departure to something new?

Arguably, Half a Life is Naipaul’s first novel in 22 years. Some, including Naipaul himself, may dispute this, but it can be convincingly argued that A Bend in the River (1979) is Naipaul’s last full-length work of fiction. The Enigma of Arrival, although subtitled A Novel is largely a work of semi-autobiographical and philosophical reflection, while A Way in the World uses a combination of styles, including some short fiction pieces, in building up a narrative sequence. Half A Life brings Naipaul back into the arena of traditional storytelling. Critics agree that the pinnacle of his achievement in this area is reflected in the scope, detail, comedy and depth of feeling of A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). A 22-year gap in sustained imaginative writing for a novelist of world stature is hugely significant, and it increases the burden of expectation that this new novel carries for Naipaul aficionados and critics.

But, even more than for his storytelling prowess, Naipaul is famous for his searing, unforgiving and controversial portraits of formerly colonized societies struggling towards self-realization in the postcolonial world. Naipaul as storyteller and Naipaul as political commentator coalesce in some of his most influential works – The Mimic Men (1969) and In a Free State (1971). In the former novel, Naipaul coins the concept of “mimicry,” as both the survival technique and enemy of progress in post-colonial societies. In the latter, he spares neither the formerly colonized nor the ex-colonizer in his portrait of crosscurrents of self-delusion amid the spiraling chaos of the African “Free State” of the title. In both works, he portrays the tragedy of complete isolation, alienation and fragmented identities of his characters. Self-knowledge is never a salvation for Naipaul’s characters – Ralph Singh in The Mimic Men may be intellectually aware of the forces that have shaped him, but that self-knowledge does not shield him from an enforced withdrawal from life, still a young man, after a disastrous political career on a Caribbean island.

This sounds very nihilistic but it is the self-awareness, the constant probing analysis of the world around him, which makes a character like Ralph Singh interesting. And it is the depth of such analysis that has been Naipaul’s contribution to literature.As despairing and vicious as his conclusions may be, he is profoundly thorough in exploring the social, political, and historical forces to which his protagonists choose to react in a particular way. Equally, in terms of his own controversial persona as a political commentator, he shows the thought processes and reactions that lead to his conclusions. While he may be ultimately dismissive, his position is always arrived at by an unsparing attention to detail.

Half a Life combines much of what has defined Naipaul’s oeuvre – his themes and concerns, his talents and his failings. The story of the young isolated colonial Indian, Willie Chandran, striving to make sense of his life in London, and thereafter in an African colony, has many resonances in Naipaul’s fiction, and is particularly reminiscent of The Mimic Men. The almost melodic cadence of the precise, harmonious prose is still there – the style that has led Naipaul justifiably to be called “the greatest living writer of English prose.” The talent for broad comic sketches and caricature is also very much in evidence – not quite the out-and-out slapstick of the early novels, but a more controlled barbed satire. A dinner party sequence, which Naipaul read aloud with great relish at the Dublin Writer’s Festival, is a magnificent setpiece in this regard. But Naipaul here, as elsewhere, will win no prizes for sensitivity or political correctness. Not surprisingly, Third World critics like Edward Said who have traditionally argued against Naipaul’s position on the Third World and his caricatures of Third World “types” are unlikely to be impressed with his Marcus – described as the son of a West Indian West African, named after a West African revolutionary, whose conversation centers obsessively on the recessiveness of the Negro gene. It is obvious, however, that Naipaul is fully aware of the outrageousness of this thinly veiled attack on C.L.R. James, and he is inviting the reader to laugh along with him, despite their better instincts.

Some of Naipaul’s caricature in Half a Life is intended merely to be funny, but some carries a far greater weight of thematic intent. Most significant is the portrait of Willie Chandran’s father at the beginning of the novel, a brilliantly sustained picture of self-delusion – and the strongest sequence in the novel. The father’s story about his upbringing and how he chose to fulfil his destiny encapsulates every criticism Naipaul has ever made of the Third World, and particularly Indian society, which Naipaul believes emphasizes “backward” concepts like tradition and fate. The characterization of the father also encompasses typically Naipaulian concerns about the tragedy of the absence of possibility to realize individual potential in such a society. Indeed, Willie Chandran’s father is doomed to failure even as he tries. Naipaul pours authorial scorn on his pathetic attempts to “follow the Mahatma’s call” and live a life of sacrifice by dropping out of university without telling anyone, and forcing himself to marry an Untouchable woman by whom he is revolted.

As an ironic contrast, Naipaul shows this supposedly unsophisticated and invisible woman as possessing a strong sense of purpose. Naipaul shows a society where action is futile, cloaked in self-delusion, and where people have no ability to progress. Most significant about the father’s narration, however, is how convinced he is of the honesty of his attempts, and the validity of his personal sacrifices. The gap between his convictions and the reality of his life makes him at once a despicable and a tragic figure. This kind of duality is often apparent in Naipaul’s characters, and even in his descriptions of characters in his non-fiction, where it functions as a questioning of his own authorial voice.

Doomed stasis is what Willie Chandran seeks to escape and like Naipaul characters before him, mere disgust at what he has left behind will not save him. In the great metropolis of London, he experiences a complete loss of context. Naipaul uses the evocative metaphor of tourist guides sold in London Underground stations which are meaningless to Willie, because they require an understanding that the monuments described are linked to important events. Willie, the colonial, has been denied this cultural knowledge. But he can also turn his dislocation to his advantage. When he tries out as a writer – his imagination is a blank page on which he can create a past and contexts that are believable to others – although to Willie they are only a pastiche of disparate impressions built up from various sources. Again, this is familiar Naipaul territory – the colonial has the power to mask his identity in a myriad of ways and a lack of context can be a powerful weapon.

Halfway through the novel, there is a perceptible change. Willie Chandran seems to experience something not attempted in Naipaul’s fiction before. He meets Ana, a Portuguese-African woman, with whom he falls in love and has a pleasurable, satisfying sexual relationship. When he decides to go to Africa with her, it is a panicked attempt to escape London, but it does carry a sense of possibility with it. In Africa, however, many of the old themes come to the fore. Willie keeps his Indian passport and �20 as insurance against the time he may need to escape, and the local Africans steal these from him in a “sinister” wielding of their power. The Portuguese community is as enclosed and dependent on its own myths as the Indian one which Willie had sought to escape. As Willie grows away from Ana, he attempts to find freedom in cliched sexual encounters with African prostitutes. When he finally leaves Ana, it is with the full realization that his life with her was only another sort of protected half-life, with obvious parallels to the life his father had lived before him.

There is a note of hope at the end. Willie Chandran, unlike Ralph Singh, is not content to be at peace with himself merely by sitting at a desk and analyzing his past. Instead, he expresses disgust at what he has wasted, and seems to look forward to the unused half of his life as a new beginning. At the same time, Naipaul cannot convince the reader of what potential Willie has to become a fully realized man of action – and the uncertainty is still there as to whether the will for change is enough.

For a reader coming to Naipaul for the first time, Half A Life can be fresh and exciting, and it is representative of his style and ideas. As always, it is beautifully written and some sequences are stunningly powerful and effective – particularly the section set in India. For readers who are used to Naipaul, and who are used to his ideas and his way of treating them, the fact that he has developed his themes no further may come as a disappointment.

– Anne Sheridan