V.S. Naipaul has long explored themes of exile, isolation and the effects of colonialism on the Indian psyche in his literature. Following brilliantly in this tradition, his “Half A Life” juxtaposes the emotional torments of one Willie Chandran with the sweeping backdrops of lands held in the grip of imperialism. Without uncertainty, one can clearly discern that the novel is literature in the truest sense the art is modernist, yet appeals somehow as a deeply personal work.
Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul ethnically Indian, Trinidadian-born and Oxford educated has been a literary force to be reckoned with since he began writing in England in the 1950s. A master of prose and a prominent historical essayist, Naipaul sharply dissects the difficulties of cultural displacement within his novels most of his works deal with the problems of third world post-colonialism and its effects on the common man. Lauded “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories,” Naipaul was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature.
“Half A Life” begins simply and continues throughout in that manner. The story begins with young Willie”s plain question to his father: “Why is my middle name Somerset?” And so begins the story of William Somerset Chandran commencing in pre-war India, flowing languidly through wartime London and finally settling in post-war Portuguese Africa. Briefly describing the tragic family history of Chandran, the novel”s sad protagonist, Naipaul quickly switches to the young half-caste”s exodus from a backward homeland.
Lonely and isolated from all semblances of his native culture, Willie embarks on a odyssey of self-discovery and ultimately, self-loathing. Beginning his Western life as a university student on scholarship, he experiences, with shame and disappointment, sexual awakening. He attempts to break the ranks of English class structure, only to find that he is scorned or ignored. He cannot find a niche in anywhere London quickly becomes the land of disenchantment for Willie. Naipaul illustrates this with precision the writing is self-aware, spare, unadorned reminiscent of Hemingway.
After a time of great despair, Willie finally finds love in the arms of Ana, a fellow international student hailing from an unnamed Portuguese territory in Eastern Africa. Turning his back on the great metropolis, he follows her back to her home and stays for 18 years. His African experience is different comfort finally settles on him, and his education furthers. But in time, Willie discovers infidelity, racial oppression and consequently, renewed unhappiness. The disillusioning forces of colonial life make Willie passive and idle. Within the last third of the novel that Naipaul emerges as a purveyor of melancholy “Half A Life” is utterly without joy, fueling itself with deeply penetrating forays into the mind of an alienated Indian man. In this regard, Naipaul nearly emulates Conrad, presenting the darker side of the imperial world.
With “Half A Life,” V.S. Naipaul has succeeds in furthering society”s consciousness of race, identity and failure. Willie Chandran is not a particularly interesting character, but he is endearing and arguably universal. In a way, his discoveries are our own. And perhaps, like he, we all waste half our lives searching for the intangible.