Behind in my blogging
Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

Half A Life

Half a LifeHalf a Life by V.S. Naipaul
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Willie Somerset Chandran learns from his father about his father's past, how he married his mother, and how he came by his middle name (after his father met Somerset Maugham while Maugham was traveling in India). The story leads Willie to despise his father, and he seeks an opportunity to get away, which eventually leads to a scholarship in England. Where the novel follows him next as he struggles with his identity, his career, and learning how to seduce women as a colonial fish-out-of-water. He eventually becomes involved with Ana, who is from a Portuguese colony in West Africa. Unable to see a future for himself in England, he asks Ana if he can go to Africa with her. There he feels even more out-of-place, though he stays for far longer than he expects, and experiences the revolution that ends colonization. He reaches middle age and finds refuge with his sister in Germany, still unsure of who he is or what he should do with his life.

This is among Naipaul's best. A short novel, it covers many of the themes and settings we are familiar with in Naipaul's other works. (Only lacking is a setting in the Caribbean (though it makes an appearance in a subplot.) It is primarily concerned with how a colonial shapes an identity in the midst of the collapse of colonialism. If one had never read Naipaul before, this would be a great book with which to begin.

Besides his ability to tell a good story or grapple with large themes, Naipaul has a brilliant command of the English language. Here is a finely written sequence. Willie and a woman, Graca, have come to an abandoned estate house in the bush in order to have a rendezvous.

The long drive had been a strain. Graca's need matched my own. That was new to me. Everything I had known before--the furtiveness of London, the awful provincial prostitute, the paid black girls of the places of pleasure here, who had yet satisfied me for so long, and for whom for almost a year I had felt such gratitude, and poor Ana, still in my mind the trusting girl who had sat on the settee in my college room in London and allowed herself to be kissed, Ana still so gentle and generous--over the next half hour everything fell away, and I thought how terrible it would have been if, as could so easily have happened, I had died without knowing this depth of satisfaction, this other person that I had just discovered within myself. It was worth any price, any consequence.

I heard a voice calling. At first I couldn't be sure about it, but then I heard it as a man's voice calling from the garden. I put on my shirt and stood behind the verandah half-wall. It was an African, one of the eternal walkers on the ways, standing on the far edge of the garden, as though fearful of the house. When he saw me he made gestures and shouted, "There are spitting cobras in the Castle." That explained the smell of fish that had been with us: it was the smell of snakes.


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