Title: Half a Life
Author : V. S. Naipaul
I sometimes go into a phase where I feel like reading Indian authors only. I got a few books by Anita Nair, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Amulya Malladi and was looking for some Vikram Seth books and I stumbled upon this book. I randomly began reading it one day. I had read the other two "Indian" Nobel Laureates for literature: Rabindranath Tagore and Rudyard Kipling(if you may consider his birth). For me it was the first encounter with Mr. Naipaul's writing. It is said that this book is a semi-autobiography. When I started flipping first few pages I realized that the language used was rich, crisp and catchy had several touches of British literature. I was totally mesmerized.
The story begins with the protagonist's story of how his parents named him Willie Chandran after the famous author W. Somerset Maugham had visited his idle, ambitionless father when he had taken up the role of the silent priest in the temple/ashram. The first section of the book takes us through a journey of his ancestors and talks in large about the inequality and class-based society in India. It talks about the life of his father, who dropped out from college and married a backward class girl against his parents and Willie was born out of this marriage. The period of the events are not mentioned but it seems like almost mid 20th century when there were a lot of societal events happening in India then.
I'm not sure if this is intentionally or coincidentally written in similar theme with Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. In both the books the protagonists struggle in identifying their true self which takes them across different countries and continents, forcing them to take up varied occupations and still having a cultural/religious identity crisis. Willie Chandran then heads to London after schooling from India based on an invitation from his father's acquaintance from his silent idle priest days. There he has trouble accepting his identity and leads a life of lies and publishes a book which brings him in touch with Ana who is half African- half American. He then heads to Africa staying there for a span of eighteen years taking care of the estate which was inherited by Ana from her grandfather. There are a lot of references to the Portuguese colonization in African states. He also goes through a stage of understanding his sexuality and physical desires which I would rather skip for the review.
There are a lot of interesting and strange characters in London and African references like Percy, the African roomie Willie in London, and then the Sunday lunch friends of Willie's: Jacinto Correia the typical entrepreneur trying to venture out into any business, the untrustworthy estate caretaker Alvora, the mystical Mrs.Noronha whom nobody dares to question, the indifferent yet sometimes sensitive Ana who is struggling with her past, Julian, the carpenter's daughter, Graca the estate caretaker's wife who is having a drunkard of a husband to deal with and who longs for physical pleasures just as Willie and each one of these characters one would be able to empathize with and these characters appear deep and familiar. As a result of colonization and guerrillas taking over parts of Africa, all the half Africans are forced to move over to Portugal to their ancestral homes and back to their families.
That is when Willie moves over to Germany after a span of eighteen long years where his sister Sarojini stays. All these accounts of African journey is told as a conversation the protagonist has with his sister. There is some part of the description in the writer's European journey regarding art and architecture. The end of the book just specifies that the protagonist finally wants to live his own life and not someone else's. It is left to the reader's imagination as to what forty-one year old Willie chose to do later whether to live his own life or be in the shadow of others.
I liked the book for the writing, its uniqueness, the characters and Mr.Naipaul's vivid description of the trends of each of the places he goes to. I didn't like the story much. It gets a little lengthy in Willie's father's and grandfather's description and this book was definitely not a gripping page turner. I would probably suggest it to serious stuff readers but its good once in a while to be able to read such a book. I would give it a three and a half for the characters whom my heart went out for.
Ratings:3.5/5 for the love of characters.