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[769] Half A Life – V.S. Naipaul

1halfnaipaul

“I have been hiding from myself, I have risked nothing. And now the best part of my life is over.” (130)

This is one of those unfulfilling books that, in spite of the quality of writing, nuanced and lyrical, fails to keep one engaged because the life of the main character is sadly pointless and wasted. The novel begins with Willie’s father, who is sick of his privileged life as a Brahmin and eager to follow in the footsteps of Gandhi, makes a vow to turn his back on his family and takes up the life of an ascetic. He marries a dark-skinned woman from a lower caste, one whom he looks down upon with scorn and condescension, and she becomes Willie’s mother.

Willie grows up being attached to his mother. He despises his father as a hypocrite and snob but, out of sheer desire to get away from India, accepts his help in getting a college scholarship in England.

I just want to tell you why I was able to follow someone I hardly knew to a colonial country in Africa of which I knew little except that it had difficult racial and social issues. (132)

In England Willie becomes a drifter. Interwoven through Bohemian parties he meets people from all walks—editor, critics, Oxford graduates—and emerge as a writer. The child of a mixed parentage, he is subject to racial and class prejudice. Always being conscious of his difference, he is given to feeling of shame and ignorance. The search into his self becomes ridiculous bouts sexual escapades. There is where I no longer care about the book.

I recognize Willie’s ardent desire to escape his provincial rearing and an exile’s sense of incompleteness and detachment. But the book drags on as Willie wanders from London to Africa to Portugal, putting himself into the hands of strangers. Deluded, aimless, and incompetent, he depends on women for his idea of being a man. He lives in Africa for 18 years only to realize he’s been living someone else’s life. Naipaul wants to explore the end of colonialism and the rise of new illusions through Willie’s sojourn, but the story just doesn’t resonate.

211 pp. Vintage International. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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