Slippery Substances: A Review of V S Naipaul’s Half a Life

Slippery Substances: A Review of V S Naipaul’s Half a Life

 Half a life is set firstly in post-independence India, at the politically protected court of the Maharaja, later in London, then in the pre-independence Africa in a nameless country modelled on Mozambique, and briefly, Berlin. The story begins as a kind of portrait of the artist, where Willie is a promising youth at the Indian mission school, living with his father, a Brahmin born man who tells Willie the story of how he married a low caste, and uneducated woman, Willie’s mother, that he neither loves nor respects for the sake of his political ideal. Disillusioned with school, and his parents, and uncertain of his future, Willie obtains, with help from one of his father’s contacts, a scholarship to a college of education for mature students in London. In London he begins, almost by accident, to write and participate in a literary social life. The novel follows Willie as he tries to find a place or role for himself, following his heart to Africa, and for want of anywhere else to go, to Berlin.

 

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Half a Life
V S Naipaul
Picador £15.99, pp214

Willie Somerset Chandran lives under a shadow. There is his middle name, taken from a one-off visit from the famous English writer Somerset Maugham to his father’s ashram. There is also Willie’s father’s associations, Willie’s eccentric friends; and the lovers he takes. While searching for meaning in his life through exile, writing, and taking chances, Willie attaches himself to those who can provide him with a road to travel on, and guidelines to follow for his life; a series of mock – gurus. It is not that uncommon a path. Naipaul’s latest novel, Half a Life has been over 8 years in the making, and combines many of the traditional Naipaul themes such as cultural alienation, the concept of a national literature, how we define ourselves, and the many ways in which we hide from ourselves, with an unusual narrative structure.

Half a life is set firstly in post-independence India, at the politically protected court of the Maharaja, later in London, then in the pre-independence Africa in a nameless country modelled on Mozambique, and briefly, Berlin. The story begins as a kind of portrait of the artist, where Willie is a promising youth at the Indian mission school, living with his father, a Brahmin born man who tells Willie the story of how he married a low caste, and uneducated woman, Willie’s mother, that he neither loves nor respects for the sake of his political ideal. Disillusioned with school, and his parents, and uncertain of his future, Willie obtains, with help from one of his father’s contacts, a scholarship to a college of education for mature students in London. In London he begins, almost by accident, to write and participate in a literary social life. The novel follows Willie as he tries to find a place or role for himself, following his heart to Africa, and for want of anywhere else to go, to Berlin.

While Half a Life avoids the overt experimentalism of Naipaul’s earlier more humorous novels, and is, in many ways, a very straight narrative, there are hints at a kind of structural disorientation which mirrors the inner life of Willie. There is the narrative voice, which disappears into the long flashback stories first from Willy’s father at first, and later, Willy, as he describes his life in Africa to his sister. Willy’s father’s story is 34 pages long, and Willy’s is 87 pages, both taking up a sizeable chunk of the novel. Willie’17;s story is particularly interesting from a narrative perspective, as it ends the novel abruptly, still in Africa in the past, an unusual way of handling flashbacks which usually end up back in the present. At one point, in between these two flashback narratives, Willie’s publishing friend, Roger tells him: “I know your great namesake and family friend says a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. But actually, if you think about it, life isn’t like that. Life doesn’t have a neat beginning and a tidy end. Life is always going on.” This directive about life not having a clean structure is mirrored by the way in which Half a Life works, as it moves backwards and forwards through time in disproportionate ways, and ends in the past, rather than at the furthest point in the future. Throughout the novel, there are little stories too, each given a reasonable number of pages, and a reasonable standing in the overall book design. There are Willie’s early stories, set in “an undefined place, at an undated time”, read reluctantly, and misunderstood, by his fathers, and the later stories of Willie, which are modelled on Hollywood stories like High Sierra or Sacrifice. There are the stories in Willie’s unnamed book. There are also Ana’s autobiographical stories of “Luisa”, which mirrors Willie’s half lies about his own background. There are also the stories of the characters he meets in Africa, from the Correias to that of Alvaro, Graca’s story, Julio’s story, and the story of the colourful African prostitutes he sleeps with. From a broader perspective, there is the the story of Mozambique’s struggle for independence from Portugal, and his sister Sarojini’s story which is mostly untold, but hinted at. From one perspective, the novel comes to an end on page 135, when Willie ends his African adventure with the words: “He stayed for eighteen years”. By moving the story backwards in time from this ending, Naipaul confounds the notion of a linear narrative, and indeed confounds the notion of linear time, leaving us abruptly in the middle of Willie’s story, and without indication of what direction his life might take. Although in his mid-40s, Willie’s life is by no means over, nor does his own narrative provide a closure to his story of Africa. It simply ends, without reference to the previous narrative voice or the previous story of Berlin.

The structure supports main theme running through the book: that of exiles living a half life. The displacement of the novel’s characters, from Willie through to the other exiles he comes into contact with, and how they manage that displacement forms the tension in the story. There are the exiles Willie meets in London: the well dressed Percy Cato, “who appeared to have no proper place in the world”, or Marcus, and most notably Ana, who mirrors his own sense of being on the outside of life; homeless, without a direction back. Sarojini accuses Willie of hiding, but she herself is homeless, wandering from city to city, with a husband notably absent from the narrative. Sarojini’s life is no more her own than Willie’s, and Willie at least has his stories, and some notion that eventually he will find a purpose: “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 set of events to the place he should go” (122) Willie finds purpose briefly, at Ana’s plantation, and then in a kind of temporary sensual life, moving through sexual encounters, but these external settings cannot be permanent for him – they belong to other people’s stories, and his role is only a minor one. The characters he meets in Africa are also drifting, waiting for something to happen – the impending disaster of the Correias, or the end of Graca’s freedom. Even those who seem to be living their own lives, such as Ana, suggest that “perhaps it wasn’t my life either” (who’s life is it?). Perhaps place and “home” don’t necessarily provide more of a personal life than exile. Perhaps we are all living half-lives.

A related theme to that of displacement is that of failure, both on a personal and on a political level. At the critical moment, Willie’s father fails himself, unable to back up his idealistic swagger with intellectual results, just as Willie later fails in his sexual life with Serafina, and with June, the girlfriends he borrows from others. Willie’s book is a failure too, as he allows it to die. Willie realises that his own failures mirror those of his father’s, and that these personal failures mirror the failure of Colonialism; Britain losing India, and Portugal losing Mozambique. But there is also the failure of those who have achieved independence to meet the promise of their countries, as they fall into similar or worse patterns of dictatorship, ugliness, and decay. Ultimate none of the characters are able to achieve realisation of their own lives, trapped in serendipity; in whatever live has to offer them. Willie’s namesake Maugham looks for book spirituality in India from a man who has been known as holy for accidental reasons. Willie finds love in a chance encounter with a reader of his abandoned book.

Like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Half a Life provides a series of characters who have missed the boat; who are waiting for something to happen which never does, although of course death always comes eventually. However, the waiting itself; the yearning, becomes its own kind of meaning. As Willie’s father says: “In the beginning I felt I had trapped myself. But very soon I found that the role fitted. I became easier and easier with it, and I understood one day that, through a series of accidents, tossed as in a dream from one unlikely situation to another, acting always on the spur of the moment, wishing only to reject the sterility of our life, with no clear view of what was to flow, I had fallen into ancestral ways”. Willie himself has: “no idea of what he wanted to do, except to get away from what he knew, and yet with very little idea of what lay outside what he knew”. Willie’s real life is in his waiting; his dreaming; the anticipation of something. Whether it happens or not is not important. There is no full life, except for the life we live. We make and remake ourselves to suit our circumstances. Naipaul’s Half a life raises interesting questions about what life is all about. While appearing initially as a coming of age tale, the reader waits expectantly, like Willie, for a sign which never appears; an epiphany that never happens. The meaning lies buried in the stories; in the book which sinks forgotten, or in the lives we borrow. As with his father, Willie finds that this borrowed life takes on his shape. It is impossible to separate the narrative from the narrator; the live from the person living it. Naipaul’s prose is strong, and his characters well drawn, but the real strength of this book lies in the narrative structure, and its insistence on pushing out the stories of these characters; their terror and fear, and marginality. “The world is full of slippery substances”, says Willie to Ana as he comes to in the hospital, when a chance fall changes his world. Time itself is slippery, as is the self. Naipaul has written a difficult, but compelling book.

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