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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, October 30th, 2001


Half a Life

by V S Naipaul

A review by Diane Mehta

"You can keep your socks on," a prostitute instructs the raw Willie Chandran, an Indian immigrant and the protagonist of V. S. Naipaul's first work of fiction in seven years. Half Brahmin, half Untouchable, Willie arrives in London in the late 1950s, and immediately immerses himself in that era's "bohemian-immigrant life," which for him includes sleeping with his friends' girlfriends or with prostitutes. In the first half of this novel the parallels between Willie's life and that of his creator are unmistakable: An aspiring writer from the imperial hinterlands journeys to London and gets involved with literary types, most of whom turn out to be self-aggrandizing schemers and fakirs. His initial attempts to publish his stories are curtly rebuffed: "India," he's told, "isn't really a subject." Ultimately, though, he places his work with a small Marxist press at which point his life deviates dramatically from Naipaul's.

Having engaged in a surreptitious and brutal sex life, Willie bumbles along passively and marries the first woman who admires his writing. He then follows her a mixed-race Portuguese-African to her estate in one of Portugal's East African outposts. Here he is no less an outsider than he was in London or India. Colonialism is coming to an end, rebellion is simmering, and in no time Willie discovers the real Africa, which resembles an uglier and more extreme version of London, minus the Britannic gentility. The dark center of this book is race. The novel brims with stereotypes certain to make most of us uncomfortable, with Africans faring the worst by far (the men are sex-charged, the women sluts). Apparently not even colonialism could save Africa from itself. Yet Naipaul is no kinder to the European interlopers, and his novel as a whole amounts to a sneer at hypocrites of every stripe. Hardly a single character escapes the authorial lash, and typically enough, the only decent person in the book Willie's wife is humiliated and alone at the end.

Half a Life has a few problems, including some stilted dialogue and a scrambled, distracting chronology. But Naipaul's style is so frank it seems intimate, and the awful characters are studied and well crafted. Behind the matter-of-fact style is a cuttingly ironic view of human relations, and occasionally the author's voice simply overwhelms his narrator's. Yet when Naipaul talks, we listen, and speaking through the guise of a fictional character may be the least offensive way for him to tell us what he thinks. Here he assigns Willie the task of moral spokesman and watches him screw up a handy reminder that in Naipaul's world a despicable fool is the best possible candidate for Everyman.

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