Half A Life, By V.S. Naipaul, Knopf, 211 pp., $24
The issues surrounding novelist and travel writer V.S. Naipaul -- is he or is he not an anti-Third World, anti-Islam, antidemocracy, pro-empire, pro-conservative nonpracticing Hindu racist, a nihilist -- grew into one big issue last month when the Nobel committee, operating according to democratic, internationalist ideals, awarded him -- Indian by nationality but Trinidad-born, Oxford-educated -- this year's prize in literature.
Is it just one writer's opinion, however, when fellow Caribbean (and a Nobel laureate himself) Derek Walcott claims that "Naipaul does not like negroes"? Or is it statement of fact when Salon.com's Gaven McNett writes that Naipaul is "a weapons-grade grumpus" who just may be, as one Indian paper put it, "the greatest living writer of English prose"?
And what's up with Naipaul himself when, in a Q&A with The New York Times in late October, he called "nonfundamentalist Islam" a "contradiction" and "[t]he idea of a moderate [Islamic] state ... something cooked up by politicians looking to get a few loans"? When, in the same interview, he said he does not believe September 11th had a thing to do with American foreign policy? When he clarified that it was his wife, a Pakistani journalist, who once called the Taliban "vermin" and he saw no reason to disagree? Who said, when he tours India or Africa, he travels without the benefit of historians or scholars of the culture and goes instead "with a very blank mind" to let "the facts emerge"? That it is "facts," not conclusions, that help make a "pattern" in the mind of his readers? But what readers? The relatively few if the benchmark is bestsellerdom and your two dozen works of fiction and nonfiction can't cut it with false sentiment of any kind. And that's a fact that does not escape the author now and did not escape him when, back in1979, he stated: "I am the kind of writer that people think other people are reading."
Half A Life, Naipaul's 13th novel but one with strong hints of the autobiographical, could be the book (abetted by the Nobel) that gets people not just talking but reading. And it might be the book by an author a general audience never looks to again. Why so? Start with the book's superabundance of facts, because it's facts (even in his fiction), not conclusions, this writer is about. A summary goes like this:
In the first-person narrative of Part One of Half A Life, it takes 10 years for the boy Willie Somerset Chandran to coax out of his father the source of Willie's unusual middle name, a name that shames him before his classmates in '40s India. And it's shame on Willie's father's part that gets him face-to-face with the famous English writer and shame that serves him as inspiration for the author of The Razor's Edge. Willie's father, a brahmin and grandson of a Hindu priest, was going for his B.A. in English literature when "the mahatma" turned his mind off England and his eye toward "the lowest person" he could find, a "coarse-featured," "noticeably black" girl from the "backward" caste, a girl herself fired by a "firebrand" uncle in a caste war conducted in the maharaja's state. Willie's father scandalously breaks off his engagement to the daughter of the principal of his college, forgets getting a degree, retreats into silence as a life-renouncing mendicant inside the precinct of a Hindu temple (where Maugham meets him), then slowly rises in rank as a cheating civil servant. Along the way, he fathers Willie and a daughter named Sarojini by the dark-skinned, never-named "girl." Willie to his father's face by the time this opening section of Half A Life ends: "I despise you."
In Part Two, delivered in the third person, Willie is in the high school of the local missionary school and dreams of escaping his family and India by moving as a missionary himself to Canada. However, his composition book tells a different story: that of a budding writer ready to reveal his family's sham life, the greater sham of an India ruled by superstition, backwardness, unreasonableness. In the opinion of his father, Willie's imaginative stories show him to be "a monster," a boy "to poison" what remains of what his father has managed to make of himself. He works to get rid of the boy, to send him to England, first by requesting help from Maugham, whose reply suggests he remembers nothing of the holy man he once revered, then from an English lord. The deal is made: Willie is to go on scholarship to a teachers' college in London.
He goes to London. He's stranded culturally, lost literally. He befriends a fellow student from Jamaica named Percy, who teaches Willie in the ways of good tailoring and good drink and the bad ways of a willing shopgirl (Percy's girlfriend), in the ways of bohemian '50s London, its big talkers and their wives, all eager to rub elbows with the influx of Third World immigrants. Cocktail talk is of crossing color lines, cross-talk of class barriers, sex, user and used. Willie is ashamed of much, but he is more driven by opportunity, and opportunity comes via the BBC, which hires him to write radio scripts. The language degree he was going for he drops in favor of his developing short stories -- culled from his composition book, culled from Hollywood plot lines -- his lawyer and writer friend Roger sure he can find a publisher for them. A sleazy, faux-Marxist friend of Roger's becomes that publisher, but the book goes nowhere critically, financially (England wants Anglo-Indian fare on the order of John Masters or Rumer Godden; "India isn't really a subject," says Roger). The book does, though, find an appreciative reader in Ana, a dark-skinned, part-Portuguese, part-African woman studying English in London, a woman quickly to become Willie's wife.
In the book's third, final, and back to first-person narrative, the couple migrate to East Africa and the never-named but clearly Portuguese-held Mozambique, Ana to occupy her family estate, Willie to manage its cotton and sisal fields. It's a country as utterly alien to Willie as London once was -- a handful of top-ranking, land-holding, "blue-blood" Europeans, a greater number of mixed-blood "half-and-halfs," a smattering of immigrants from Portuguese-held Goa in India, the fullest number, though, full-blooded Africans, with faint stirrings of guerrilla activity behind them and just across the border, activity that should be giving, if they'd listen, the non-Africans grave concern. No word from Willie as writer because Willie is living a kind of good, false life: lengthy Sunday luncheon parties among the fully white or half-and-halfs, sex among the non-landed African women in a makeshift nightclub/whorehouse in the nearest city, and finally a satisfying affair with "a mixed-race person of no fortune," the daughter of a second-rank Portuguese. Willie's sister Sarojini, whose made an "international" marriage with a German filmmaker on the track of Third World revolution, berates him for the nothing he's making of himself, and Willie hasn't the conscience to disagree. After 18 years with Ana, after slipping on the front steps of her estate and landing himself in a hospital, Willie, age 41, announces he's divorcing her and retreating from the civil unrest engulfing the country. He goes to Sarojini in Germany, his future a blank, the same blank Willie's father once said his son had inherited from his mother's "backward" background to go with the "habit of non-seeing" Willie realizes he's inherited from his father. Conclusion: no conclusion.
It was Willie's friend Roger the lawyer who'd advised him in London to rewrite his stories, to "begin in the middle and end in the middle." "It should all be there," Roger advises, but the stories need work. "I've spent a fair amount of time listening to devious characters," he adds, "and I feel about these stories that the writer has secrets. He is hiding." Willie is mortified because he knows Roger is right. He goes to a bookstore and buys Hemingway's short stories. A story called "The Killers" is all dialogue, "the people weren't to be explained," and Willie's own stories, coming more quickly now, achieve something that they hadn't achieved before. Roger reads the revised manuscript and announces, "One story on its own might not have an impact, but taken together they do. The whole sinister thing builds up. ... It's India and not India. You should carry on."
Half A Life is V.S. Naipaul late in life carrying on, his language pinpoint and his mastery of narrative evident as ever. The book deserves an audience -- will the Nobel introduce them? keep them? -- unbothered by the prospect of sharing in Willie's shaky ground. The big issues surrounding Naipaul? Big talk. It's Naipaul the fictionist who's telling some uncomfortable truths.