Magazine article The Spectator

An Innocent, but Not at Home

Magazine article The Spectator

An Innocent, but Not at Home

Article excerpt

HALF A LIFE by V. S. Naipaul Picador, L15.99, pp. 228, ISBN 0330485164

Willie Chandran, from a family of tem ple priests, grows up in a maharajah's state in the last days of the Raj. Mocked at school because his middle name is `Somerset', he discovers that he was named after a great English writer who had a stammer and who once visited his father while travelling to gather material for a book about spirituality. His father had quarrelled with his own family by marrying Willie's mother, an ill-favoured and sarcastic woman of low caste. Subsequently this father abandoned all chance of a future as an engineer or doctor; he `gave up education and unfitted himself for life'. Instead he became a holy man, taking a vow of silence and living by begging in an ashram.

Willie Chandran's childhood is spent in genteel poverty on the fringe of the maharajah's court. But he has hopes of future distinction since he is raised in the shade of the revered Mr Maugham. As Gandhi's `civil disobedience' spreads through the Raj, Willie's childhood world becomes increasingly confused, his father's certainties dissolve and British rule collapses. Willie's view of India becomes misty and uncertain, like that of a foreigner. And his personal confusion is complicated by the enveloping chaos of Indian independence; this is the familiar world of Naipaul, where ordinary lives are swamped by political turmoil.

Half a Life is entirely set in the recent past and follows Chandran's life, or `half life', from India to literary failure in London and finally to a Portuguese colony in Africa. These three periods in Chandran's progress act as a sort of background to destinies first glimpsed in The Mimic Men, Guerrillas and A Bend in the River. But Half a Life is more than a reprise; it is an unexpectedly topical book since it links Europe and Asia in a bitter political struggle and depicts some of the consequences of political decline, loss of control, post-colonial weakness, personal confusion and self-- hatred, the melancholy litany of themes that support the life of Naipaul's silhouetted characters.

The interlude on the fringes of Fifties literary-political London, Fitzrovia and the slums of pre-gentrified Notting Hill is accomplished in barely 50 pages. Willie knows of Speakers' Corner as an international symbol of freedom, but when he gets there for the first time he is struck by the thought that `the families of these men might have been glad to get them out of the house in the afternoon'. Later he is taken to lunch at Chez Victor with its little notice '1e Patron mange ici' and a glimpse of V. S. Pritchett across the room - pointed out to Willie as the main reviewer in the New Statesman, a paper he had seen in the college library `full of mystery [and] English issues he didn't understand'.

This is the world of left-wing parties to which a boorish and tedious poet can be invited to recreate Proust's `nosegay effect', like a little bit of dead fern setting the whole thing off. It is also the world of `bedroom Marxists', so-called after the room on which their Marxism is centred, and where it stops. One of them, Percy Cato, works for a violent slum landlord who makes an incognito cameo appearance at one such party, bearing champagne. The landlord, surely a portrait of the late Peter Rachman, has `an extraordinarily soft voice . …

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