Shane's Reviews > Half a Life

Half a Life by V.S. Naipaul
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it was ok

Great novelists need alter egos to rationalize their lives. Updike had Rabbit, Roth had Zuckerman, and Naipaul has Willie Chandran.

This novel, the first of two Willie Chandran books cover’s the protagonists life until his early forties. It’s a novel about displacement and the quest to belong. Willie’s great grandfather left the protection of the temple to seek his life in the big city, a migration that was transformative, for he rose to prominence as a scribe in the employ of the maharajah of his state in India. Willie’s cowardly father went the other way, from courtier back to the ashram. It is for Willie to step up to the plate and find his place in the world and he ends up as a student in England, just like Naipaul did.

Willie’s desire to write gets him into bohemian circles in London where his first book of stories from his homeland is published. Yet, Willie is rootless, lacking in social graces and class. He is unable to date a woman and instead sleeps with his male friends’ girlfriends, as he already knows them and is able to approach them for larger “favours.” He gravitates to prostitutes until he falls in love with Ana, a Portuguese emigré. The book then takes a dramatic turn as Willie gives up his blossoming writing career in England to follow Ana to her home, a Portuguese colony in East Africa never mentioned by name, but which I took to be Mozambique.

The second half of the story in Africa is a told one for it is Willie now recounting his 18 years in that continent to his sister Sarojini whom he has returned to in Berlin. This part has a remarkable lack of dialogue. However Naipaul gets to expose the plight of the immigrant in this section. Just as Willie tried his damndest to become an Englishman in England and failed, the locals, who are African, half-breed or Arab, try their best to become Portuguese in his new home, for becoming like the ruling class confers the highest privileges. Naipaul describes the colonial farms run by the Portuguese gentry very well, right from the furniture to the lifestyle, to the side deals they do to amass money. Ana gets the legitimacy to run her farm with Willie as her man of the house, although he is even more rootless than in England, and very soon takes up with prostitutes, again. History repeats when he is rescued from the emotionless whores by falling in lust with Graḉa, Ana’s friend married to a drunk. The existence of this colonial society that was formed after the first world war is at risk due to the encroaching guerilla war, fermented by dissent, foreign support, and inequality. And when the transference of power happens, Willie lives through the breakdown of systems, estate take-overs, scarcities, and the transition to everyone becoming poor. But like much of Africa today, the locals who gain power then start fighting among themselves, snapping Willie’s last straw, making him flee, not only Africa and Ana, but his own wasted and deprived life. He accuses Ana, “I’ve been living your life for eighteen years, not mine.” Then why the heck did he go to Africa? That question is never quite answered, although race riots occurred in Notting Hill at the time.

Like I found with the second of the Willie Chandran novels, Magic Seeds, that I read a few years ago, Naipaul seems to be losing his novelistic edge at this point of his career, although this book has a bit more legs to it than the sequel does. He seems to be more interested in exposing the social, political and psychological impacts of immigration via a thinly veiled story, than in the story itself. There were gaps in the narrative in places, for instance I didn’t know that Willie and Perdita (another of Willie’s London friend’s girlfriends) had lit a spark, I didn’t know he had given one of his prostitutes half a week’s wages—had an eager editor cut these bits out, or had Naipaul forgotten to write them in?

That this is an incomplete novel requiring a sequel is obvious, for Willie is no more resolved at the end than when we first meet him. However, given my disappointment in the sequel, I wondered why Naipaul bothered to create this alter-ego. Naipaul was a far more interesting character in himself, and books like Sir Vidia’s Shadow do better justice and shed far more light on this enigmatic writer. I think Naipaul would have been well placed to have written about the real world, using his insightful observational and narrative powers to make sense of it for us, rather than to examine his complex life via Willie Chandran.


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Started Reading
February 9, 2019 – Shelved
February 9, 2019 – Finished Reading

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