VS Naipaul’s Half a Life is the story of Willie Chandran, son of a low caste mother and a father who meets then marries her in order to rebel against the constraints and traditions of Indian life. For the father this is a half hearted attempt to follow Ghandi’s ideas and break free from caste. In the end he finds the traditions themselves trap him into an inevitably unhappy union.
The first part of this book deals with India and the experiences of this mismatched family. Wille then goes to England where he becomes part of the bohemian half world of 1950s London. He encounters a range of characters and experiences, and has some unfulfilling sexual adventures. Finally he meets and marries a Portugese African woman, travelling to Africa and to her family plantation, where the remainder of the story unfolds. Needless to say this is not a happy time and Willie compromises himself and his moral values by getting involved in an illicit love affair. Ironically this is the most fulfilled time of his life, but the pleasures of the moment are gained at immense cost to Willie and his marriage, so that fulfilment itself seems really to be unattainable – hence the title.
It’s amazing that Naipaul can write so confidently about experience on three continents, bringing their mores and traditions so vibrantly alive. The writing is precise and elegant: there is no verbosity and no extravagance. The blurb quotes the Independent on Sunday: Naipaul has never been funnier than this. Well maybe, but it’s quite a grim kind of humour. I didn’t laugh very much, but the characters were real and the situations thought provoking, and of both historical and contemporary relevance: the last days of European colonialism, and the foundations of the sixties social revolution are both described here. It was such a relief to read this after Us by Nicholls. With Us the writer is always straining for effect, whilst Naipaul carries the reader along without any apparent effort at all.