Willie Chandron, the protagonist of V.S. Naipaul’s “Half a Life,” is a bitter young Indian, and it doesn’t help when his father clarifies a few shameful details of his family’s past. “I despise you,” Willie tells him, and really he despises everything his passionless life has presented him. He goes to London and then Africa to reinvent himself.
The novel hovers around Naipaul’s familiar themes of dislocation, racial intersections, shame and class, but it never feels grandiose; ultimately Willie’s is a navigation of minor social excursions. “Half a Life” is full of sharp stories. Nobody describes prolonged discomfort with quite so many funny, sad moments. Naipaul writes simply and gently. Even in moments of grotesquerie — when, say, Willie brings a woman into a spitting cobra-infested castle and spreads out a rubber sheet for sex — the writing stays restrained.
Willie is like the alien from John Sayles’ film “Brother from Another Planet,” but not as sweet and, as an Indian in the 1950s, only half a brother. He arrives in London not knowing anything. He drifts from bars to dinner parties to newspaper offices, and our fun lies in watching him observe odd social customs and sad class incongruities. Pretentious Brits admit him to their circles, as a mirror or an oddity, and every few pages they say something condescending about India. Naipaul presents London terrifically, as a town of impressionable young heirs still learning to promote themselves in a world shaped by imperial forbears. Everyone looks up to their ancestors for having created such splendor.
Then Willie falls in love, gets married and moves to Portuguese East Africa. He spends 18 years there, an outsider again, but this time on the side of the crumbling empire, as his middle-class wife, Ana, is mainly Portuguese. His house is concrete, not mud, and he weekends with Ana’s European friends — playing Nick Carraway to these Gatsbys of the bush. Willie is still a little displaced in Africa, but not much more so than, say, a Richard Ford character casting about in New Jersey. His trusty alienation now somewhat toothless, Willie submits to the consolations of bourgeois comfort. Granted, this is the bush version of bourgeois, and it includes sex with young African girls, but the point is, he’s no longer rudderless in London.
What’s greatest about “Half a Life” is, of all things, its pacing. In London, Willie can’t be still. We get flashes of British life — a bullied receptionist, a prostitute taking some “French letters” from a bag — and then we’re off to the next room. But in Africa, as Willie eases into the borrowed life of his wife’s world, the camera pans slower and slower. There are interruptions, as when he’s arranging a tryst, but generally this is travel writing: simple bougainvillea descriptions, without mention of alienation, race or class division.
“Half a Life” meanders interestingly in this way — bildungsroman to travel book, England to Africa — and Naipaul is offering us a character with a similarly unstable center. The novel and its protagonist alike drift along with the convolutions of postcolonial Africa and England, but Willie never reduces to a simple metaphor, and the drifting isn’t in service of some glib point. He is, instead, a believable and likably sad man, with half a life left and probably more peripheries to visit along the way.
Next pick: A white South African woman seeks meaning in her Muslim husband’s world.