The jacket of the book says, V.S. Naipaul, a novel, Half a Life, but the book reads like a memoir barely disguised. Willie Chandran, an Indian, is given the middle name Somerset by his father, after the English writer, Somerset Maugham. Why? Because his father, a Brahmin, though a poor one, decides to follow the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and live a life of sacrifice. His sacrifice is that he will marry a woman of low caste, but his attempt to court this woman backfires and he ends up taking a vow of silence to escape the wrath of the woman's uncle. Somerset Maugham is in awe of this Indian man who refuses to speak and he writes about him in a novel, but, later, when Willie calls on him for his help, Maugham sends a polite note that clearly indicates that Willie's father was no more to him than a piece of exotica. In the end Willie's father supports himself as a letter writer for the maharaja and Willie, caught between his parents' conflicting caste status and ambitions and his sense of dislocation in India, spends his time writing make- believe stories about a happy Canadian family.
Willie gets a scholarship to a university in England that imitates the style at Oxford, he works at the BBC in London as a journalist, he has sex with the girlfriends of his friends, he meets Ana, a Portuguese mestiza, goes with her to Africa, to her home in a Portuguese colony, most likely Mozambique, marries her, stays in Africa for eighteen years, during which time he learns about the sensual pleasures of sex with African prostitutes, meets another woman who has two teenage children in boarding school in Portugal and is married to an alcoholic, has great sex with this woman, apparently falls in love with her, but, finally, when he slips on a step, he decides the wars in the colony in Africa have become too much for him and he wants to leave Africa to work out for himself what has happened to him over the years, because before now, it was his wife, Ana, who had looked at his "bruises and cuts" and worked out what had happened to him.
Those familiar with Naipaul's earlier work, particularly A House for Mr. Biswas will recognize Willie as the son of Mr. Biswas, a maker of shop signs in Trinidad, the husband embroiled in the chaos of caste distinctions so important to his wife's family. They will recognize Willie also as the young Naipaul in Finding the Centre, writing his first book, a series of stories, working at the BBC in London, and then finally finding his voice as a writer. And those who know Naipaul's latest book, Between Father and Son, will have no trouble making parallels between Naipaul's early days in Trinidad as a boy who eventually wins a scholarship to Oxford and a young man in England, at Oxford, to Willie's experiences in the first part of Half a Life. So why is Naipaul crossing territory he has crossed before in earlier work? Perhaps one should exclude Between Father and Son. If one is to believe Naipaul's disclaimer, he had little to do with that book other than give his editor access to the letters he wrote to his father and sister and the ones his father and sister wrote to him. There is, of course, that nasty exposŽ his erstwhile friend Paul Theroux wrote in Sir Vidia's Shadow, but it is hard to believe that Naipaul would have taken the time to write a novel simply as rebuttal. Yet it does not hurt that Naipaul has given us in Half a Life a far more sympathetic portrayal of a marriage in which there was no passion than the one Theroux gives between Naipaul and his first wife. And it does not hurt that Willie Chandran in Half a Life finds it possible to empathize with Africans, even with the child prostitutes he uses to gratify his lust.
Half a Life may be worth reading to explore these parallels, but it is worth reading for much more. Naipaul, as his fellow Caribbean Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott graciously concedes, writes elegant prose, "luminous, the jacket of his book says. And Naipaul's observations of Africa in this new book are far more nuanced, far more sympathetic than they have been before. Indeed, one senses a glimmer of an apology for his earlier depictions. Willie Chandran admits that his view of history had been skewed. He had learned "the habit of non-seeing from his father, "to watch without seeing and hear without listening. The old Naipaul is still there, of course, in Half a Life, sneering behind the high-handed guise of objectivity at black and brown people. Marcus, a black West Indian who had spent time in Africa, has two ambitions: "to have a grandchild who will be pure white in appearance, and "to be the first black man to have an account at Coutts. That's the Queen's bank. Then there is English Richard who, observing that "it takes a resettled man from West Africa to give us a "corrective reading of one of our Victorian classics, suggests to Willie Chandran that he "might give us a new reading of Wuthering Heights, since Heathcliff was a half-Indian child. But these and other examples aside, one is surprised to find a more generous and understanding Naipaul in Half a Life.
Has his recent marriage to a brown lady mellowed Naipaul? There are passages in Half a Life that beg that question. Willie, speaking of Ana, says, "There was a little curl to her hair just as it sprang out of her temples. In that curl I saw her African ancestry, and loved her for that too. Referring to the African girl prostitutes, Willie says, "Immediately as these girls began to dance they were touched by a kind of grace. And he compares his sister Sarojini to these girls: "And the girls were so young, so foolish, with so little idea, as I thought, of the way they were abusing their own bodies and darkening their lives. I thought with old unhappiness of things at home. I thought of my mother and I thought of my poor father who had hardly known what sex was. I thought of you, too, Sarojini. I imagined that the girls might be you, and my heart sank. Willie is touched when he visits the Portuguese governor's house. He says, "It was like being given a new glimpse of our own history. The "cruel thought comes to him of "those hands working for months or years on those extravagant chairs and settees for the governor here. It must be added that the hands he speaks of here are Indian hands, but no matter.
Naipaul is back to his old themes of alienation and exile in Half a Life, but with deeper poignancy. What is lost when the immigrant spends a lifetime away from the home of his birth? What can never be regained? These questions haunt much of Willie Chandran's story. What happens when one belongs to neither one ethnic group nor the other, like the mestizos, the "half and half people of the Portuguese African colony who have both Portuguese and African blood. It is a question that in these times when we celebrate the richness of multiculturalism and interracial relationships makes us pause.
Elizabeth Nunez is the author of When Rocks Dance, Beyond the Limbo Silence and Bruised Hibiscus, which won an American Book Award. Discretion, her fourth novel, will be published in late February 2002 by Ballantine Books. Like Naipaul, Nunez was born in Trinidad, and left after high school to go to college abroad.