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Half an Autobiography

4 minute read

I’m so dazzled by the richness of the world that I think fiction is not quite catching it,” V.S. Naipaul said some years ago. The “it,” his readers will recognize, is principally the postcolonial world, its tormented past and upheavals that Naipaul has spent most of his career chronicling. It is also what members of the Swedish Academy had in mind when they awarded him this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Naipaul’s novels and reportage have helped shape our perceptions of places we hear about only when they are hit by civil wars and famines. His oblique stories about his journey from obscurity to knighthood suggest how difficult it must have been to reinvent himself in a society that treated its colonials like illegitimate cousins.

Sir Vidiadhar is also a great prose stylist and innovator. In The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World, he has evolved a signature blend of autobiography, artifice and journalism that tests (even by today’s liberal definitions) the limits of conventional fiction. Half A Life (Knopf; 211 pages), the latest hybrid, begins in colonial India with a droll anecdote. The son of a Brahmin family marries a low-caste woman and forfeits his social standing. He is a maharaja’s tax clerk who, influenced by Gandhi’s politics of poverty, makes false account entries in favor of poor landowners. Unwelcome at home and in danger of prosecution, the upstart takes cover as a mute beggar. A touring W. Somerset Maugham is impressed by this bogus act of mystical piety and is inspired to write his best selling novel, The Razor’s Edge. The faker becomes a celebrity and names his son Willie Somerset Chandran.

Cut to London in the 1950s where Willie, a reluctant academic, has been sent to a second-rate college on scholarship. He is baffled by the wider world. He expected the city to have a storybook magnificence. Instead, he finds Buckingham Palace disappointing. “He thought the maharaja’s palace in his own state was far grander,” writes Naipaul, “and this made him feel, in a small part of his heart, that the Kings and Queens of England were impostors.” London’s doors do not open easily. Attempts to contact his famous namesake are all met with the same brief note: “Dear Willie Chandran, It was nice getting your letter. I have very nice memories of India, and it is always nice hearing from Indian friends. Yours very sincerely.”

Young Willie, like his father, is shrewd enough to the know the power of keeping his mouth shut. But he lacks the confident self-awareness to make things click. So it’s surprising and not too convincing when Chandran turns out to have writing talent. He contributes scripts to the BBC and eventually publishes a collection of stories about India. Up to this point, aspects of Willie’s life and early career are similar to those of Naipaul, a Trinidadian of Indian descent who took a degree at Oxford, worked for the BBC and wrote fiction. Unlike his protagonist, Naipaul learned everything about London and its ways.

Autobiographical elements in the narrative fall away completely when Willie marries and moves to Portuguese-speaking Africa as the husband of a plantation owner in an unnamed country that is clearly Mozambique. Just as he was about to become his own man, he becomes someone else’s. Literary London and a writing life are replaced by 18 years of backwater society and sisal harvests before Willie, at the age of 41, leaves his wife and returns to Europe. “I have been hiding from myself,” he concludes. “I have risked nothing. And now the best part of my life is over.”

Naipaul has written about defeated men before. But they usually went down with a misguided or ill-fated passion. Willie Chandran simply drifts, usually from woman to woman, in a state of incompleteness. Fortunately, he is a continental drifter who allows Naipaul to revisit familiar ground and again bring to bear his formidable powers as a literary man and journalist. The two disciplines are indistinguishable in Half a Life. But there are clear influences. Naipaul’s India could be a setting in an R.K. Nayaran story. His Africa is as baleful as Conrad’s and his London Waugh-like. Here, for example, is a man-about-town explaining how to ensure a successful dinner party: “I’m asking the poet and his wife only for the nosegay effect. A little bit of dead fern, to set the whole thing off.” There are moments in this book-of-many-parts when the same could be said of Willie Chandran.

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