Synopses & Reviews
In a narrative that moves with dreamlike swiftness from India to England to Africa, Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul has produced his finest novel to date, a bleakly resonant study of the fraudulent bargains that make up an identity.
The son of a Brahmin ascetic and his lower-caste wife, Willie Chandran grows up sensing the hollowness at the core of his father's self-denial and vowing to live more authentically. That search takes him to the immigrant and literary bohemias of 1950s London, to a facile and unsatisfying career as a writer, and at last to a decaying Portugese colony in East Africa, where he finds a happiness he will then be compelled to betray. Brilliantly orchestrated, at once elegiac and devastating in its portraits of colonial grandeur and pretension, Half a Life represents the pinnacle of Naipaul's career.
About the Author
V. S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He went to England on a scholarship in 1950. After four years at Oxford he began to write, and since then he has followed no other profession. He is the author of more than twenty books of fiction and nonfiction and the recipient of numerous honors, including the Nobel Prize in 2001, the Booker Prize in 1971, and a knighthood for services to literature in 1990. He lives in Wiltshire, England.
Reading Group Guide
1. The novel begins with Willies question to his father about why he was named after the English novelist W. Somerset Maugham. If a name is a crucial piece of a persons identity, how useful is the information Willie receives? How does Maugham come across in his responses to Willies and his fathers letters?
2. How does Willies father become a holy man? What is comical, and what is reprehensible, in the choices he makes? Is he a person trapped in circumstances beyond his control, or might he have done things differently? What is the source of his narcissism? Considering that in Maughams The Razors Edge, the holy man is believed by his Western admirers to be a person of true integrity, why does Naipaul portray this character as a fraud?
3. Naipaul has written about Indias caste system in several of his nonfiction books. How does he recreate the social world of a caste-based culture in this novel? Why does he choose to root the circumstances of a novel about identity-or the lack of it-in a characters half-hearted effort to rebel against the caste system? Given the feelings he expresses for his wife and child on pages 32 and 33, is Willies father a racist at heart, despite his admiration for Gandhi?
4. Willie has a painful love for his mother and despises his father. Why do his mother and sister seem immune to the sense of shame that Willies father has passed along to his son? What are the effects, in Willies later life, of this internalized shame?
5. What do the stories that Willie writes while in school [pp. 38—45] communicate to the reader? Which of them is the most powerful? Does Willies creativity spring solely from his hatred for his father? In his “Prologue to an Autobiography,” Naipaul wrote, “To become a writer, that noble thing, I had thought it necessary to leave [home]. Actually to write, it was necessary to go back. It was the beginning of self-knowledge.” How does this statement relate to Willies brief writing career?
6. What is the reason for Willies lack of knowledge about the world? How does he adapt to life in London? What point is Naipaul making about the insular world from which Willie comes?
7. How does it change his outlook when Willie realizes that a cultures rules are largely “make-believe,” and that “he was free to present himself as he wished. He could, as it were, write his own revolution” [p. 57]? What difference does this new sense of freedom make for his life in the immigrant community in London? How does he attempt to remake himself? How successful is he in shedding his past?
8. Is it significant that Willies first book is, “in substance . . . like the story Willie had heard over many years from his father” [p. 96]? How is Willie like his father, and in what ways does his life, as it develops throughout the novel, mirror his fathers life?
9. What is the effect on Willie of his fathers letter telling him of Sarojinis “international marriage” [pp. 105—06]? What do Sarojinis letters, and the way she conducts her own life, say about her? Why is she so different from her brother?
10. In the aftermath of his books publication, Willie believes, “All that he had now was an idea-and it was like a belief in magic-that one day something would happen, an illumination would come to him, and he would be taken by a series of events to the place he should go. What he had to do was to hold himself in readiness, to recognise the moment” [p. 114]. What sort of revelation is this? Is Willies passivity simply the deepest expression of his character, or can it be attributed to his status as an exile who has willingly cut himself off from his past?
11. Is Anas letter the sign Willie has been waiting for? Is Anas plantation “the place he should go” [p. 114]? Why does Ana choose Willie? Why does he attempt to keep the truth of his background from her? Why, in the end, does he decide to leave her? Is he unable to face the political changes, as well as the violence, that may come to Anas part of the world?
12. In Half a Life, Willie moves from India to an unnamed country in East Africa; both are areas about which Naipaul has written at length. If you have read Naipauls nonfiction travel writing, or any his novels set in Africa, what is familiar or unfamiliar about his treatment of India and Africa in this novel? How does Willies life in Africa differ from his familys life in India? Why is race such a preoccupation in the plantation society in which Willie moves?
13. Willies friend Percy Cato comes from a similar colonial background and is also of mixed blood, as is the tile worker Willie observes at work in the Portuguese seafood restaurant. How does Willie compare with Percy? Why is Willie so moved at the sight of the persecuted tile worker that he thinks to himself, “Who will rescue that man? Who will avenge him?” [p. 155]
14. What is notable about Naipauls writing style in Half a Life? How does the novels structure reflect Naipauls themes of time, memory, and the retelling of experience? Why does the novel end where it does?
“ A masterpiece . . . and a potent distillation of the authors work to date.” —The New York Times
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your groups reading of Half a Life, V. S. Naipauls first novel since the exultantly acclaimed A Way in the World.