Half a Life, published a decade ago, is another one of Naipaul's spare, brooding tales that focuses on the lack of identity--cultural identity, really--that characterizes modern life. The novel begins with a kind of joke. Willie Chandran was so named for W. Somerset Maughm who once met Willie's confused father, a silent holy man in India. This brought Willie no luck, however. Maughm wrote about the father, but he never expressed interest in helping Willie, not even when Willie showed up in London.
The London Willie came to (sometime in the 50's, one imagines) was a kind of imperial beach, littered with the human artifacts that the British Empire had brought upon itself: Indians, people from the Caribbean, Africans, Canadians, and so forth. Everyone was half something, half something else.
As it happens, Willie has some luck writing for the BBC while pursuing studies at an unnamed college. He then squeezes a book of short stories out of himself, most of the stories fables set in imaginary kingdoms. One thinks, aha, like Maughm Willie will become a writer, and perhaps a successful one. But no, here Naipaul breaks off his own personal saga (he came to London from Trinidad and established himself as a writer from the get-go) and takes Willie on a kind of cultural/sexual saga wherein he experiments with whores, loose Brits looking for a fling with a man of color, and then a Portuguese-African, Ana, who in some ways saves him. They move to a Portuguese colony in Africa where her father left her an estate, and for eighteen years Willie accomodates himself to luxury in the bush, with occasional night rides into the dance halls of black Africans where his needs are explosively satisfied by very young women.
His life seems pointless. The lives around him also seem pointless. High points are the night rides and the weekend lunches at other estates, where the architectural grandeur (or pretension) is not matched by intrinsic human interest. (Sidenote: Having spent much of my life exposed to well-to-do ex-pats, I'm of the opinion that they're among the saddest of all human beings, ravenous to hear about the States but insistent that they know the States better, far better, than anyone who actually lives there.)
Then Willie meets a woman named Gracia, who is his instant soulmate although she's trapped in a marriage to a drunk estate manager. Well, there's a loping quality in a Naipaul in which "one day" these things happen; they just do. Two eyes meet two eyes and all four eyes explode with understanding.
But meanwhile the Portuguese-based regime is crumbling; black Africa is reclaiming its rightful place, and Gracia and Willia (and Ana) are pulled apart, unsure that any of them has really had a life, or perhaps even half a life, the book's title.
Oops, I gave the ending away, but this hardly matters. Naipaul excels in perfectly controlled, clearly focused, exotic studies of people and the cultural landscapes in which they dwell. That's what you read him for. This isn't Of Human Bondage, big and throbbing and heart-wrenching. No, Willie and other protagonists in Naipaul's books are written in minor keys. Their claims are acute but modest; they are trapped betwixt and between, and that's what one reads Naipaul to experience...that ambiguity and ambivalence...that sense that among ex-pats there are at least a few thoughtful, pained figures worth your time.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund