With 'Half a Life,' Naipaul nails down his Nobel Prize

On Books

October 21, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

In announcing, on Oct. 11, that it was giving the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature to V.S. Naipaul, the Swedish Academy declared him to be "a literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself, in his inimitable voice. Singularly unaffected by literary fashion and models." This, the 100th annual Nobel, was a daring -- and thoroughly deserved -- choice. Notoriously self-assured and, to some minds, misanthropic in private life, Naipaul outrages many critics.

The Nobel citation praised him for "having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories." To his detractors, that reads that he triumphantly fails to observe the postmodernist commandments of multicultural victimhood.

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, now 69, was born in Trinidad of Indian parents, going to England on scholarship when he was 18 years old. Since then, he has richly traveled the world. Who better to explore and express the proprieties of postcolonial political verities, to rail against colonialism and neocolonialism?

Yet now comes his 26th book, Half A Life (Knopf, 211 pages, $24), a brilliant novel about a man born in India, who escapes to an English university and lives 18 years in Africa -- a tale that circumnavigates pretty well the entire geography of the colonial wasteland. Instead of radical political raillery, it is a profoundly intimate exploration of the importance and consequence of the senses of personal meaning and destiny. If anything, it celebrates very traditional European values.

The novel begins with the tale of Willie Chandran's father, a chapter titled "A Visit from Somerset Maugham." Like the entire book, it's a simple story, enormously complex in terms of emotion and questions of intent and personal integrity -- and yet never less than crystalline in its clarity.

Born into a Brahmin caste of temple priests, the older Chandran is headed toward a relatively advantaged career and life as a local government official. Ostensibly in service to Gandhi's call for student boycotts and protest, he drops out of school in the 1930s. Then, as a gesture of rejecting India's caste system, he takes up with a girl of very low station -- a "backward" who's never named -- for whom he feels neither attraction nor affection.

He evades confronting life in any responsible manner by taking a vow of silence and penury, living in the shadows of a Hindu temple. There, he is happened upon by W. Somerset Maugham, in India on a research trip. They converse by writing notes. Maugham is impressed, and cites Chandran in his published diaries and, it is widely assumed, The Razor's Edge -- Maugham's immensely successful examination of stark mysticism.

Chandran thus becomes a somewhat famous local figure.

Beneath all his actions, a consciousness of profoundly hypocritical self-indulgence is clearly visible.

With the low-caste woman, Chandran has two children, Willie -- named for Maugham -- and his sister, Sarojini. Willie grows up to detest his father. But, on the strength of the literary associations, he goes to England to a second-tier college.

Through his awareness of his father's hypocrisy and the superficiality of other people he meets, Willie comes to believe that truth is of no consequence. He begins manufacturing a false, flattering identity, gradually fitting into the 1950s London bohemian life, marked by easy dishonesty and petty crime, rootless mixtures of races and cultures, unmoving sex and immense self-indulgence.

He does short on-air pieces for BBC, and writes some reflective childhood stories, which are accepted by a publisher. Waiting for the book to come out, he faces the threat of replicating his father's idle, purposeless life: "I don't know where I am going," he tells himself. "I don't like the place that's waiting for me at home. ... It will be a waste of my precious life." There is irony in that preciousness.

The book gets at least one unkindly review and is largely ignored. But one reader, Ana, a young woman from Africa, three-quarters Portuguese and one-quarter African, writes him a praiseful letter. They meet and fall in love.

Sarojini, meanwhile, marries a German political radical, and goes continent-hopping with him, rustling up revolution in Latin America and elsewhere. Visiting Willie in London and writing terse letters, she admonishes him not to waste his life, and insists the only alternative is in revolutionary activism, which Willie finds trivial.

Instead, Willie decides to go to Africa with Ana, who is heiress to a prosperous old farming estate in a Portuguese African colony. For 18 years, he remains, doing little except living a life of kept privilege, but it is a life free of lies, at least for a dozen of those years. That all changes when he embarks on a string of dalliances and affairs with local women.

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