May 27, 2008

Books: Half A Life by V.S. Naipaul

Half A Life tells the story of Willie Somerset Chandran, an Indian-born lead named after the English writer W.S. Maugham who had visited India at the time his father was living as a mendicant having taken a vow of silence. The reasons for this are unclear, but in the period prior to independence, Willie's father shows his rebellion against the system by marrying a 'backward', or someone of the lowest caste.

Willie comes to despise his father and attempts to find a new life by emigrating to London. There, while trying to make a living as a writer, he sees 1950s West Indian bohemian life in west London firsthand and is both attracted and repulsed by it.

Then, after the publication of a collection of short stories, he is contacted by a woman called Ana from an east African Portuguese colony (read Mozambique), and then goes to live with her as her husband on her estate. Despite living there for 18 years, Willie seems to learn very little about Africa and seems only half-tuned in to what's going on around him.

Naipaul's book is interesting and contains many insights into life as an immigrant in the mid-twentieth century post-colonial decades, though at the same time many of the characters are only half-sketched out, meaning that Half A Life at times seems like half a novel, and Chandran seems like a person who has drifted through life without really making any real decisions. Having said that, however, I enjoyed it enough to get hold of the follow-up, The Magic Seeds.

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