Half a Life plunges the reader into the middle of a story and ends, half a life distant, at the beginning of another. V. S. Naipaul continues the boundary-exploring work that won him the Nobel Prize in literature in this tale of a man snagged in cultural crosscurrents. The autobiographical elements of Half a Life thrust themselves to the fore. The protagonist, Willie Chandran, is (like Naipaul himself) an Indian whose family was transplanted to Trinidad and who, in turn, receives an English education and adopts that language for his pen. Educated first by Canadian missionaries and later in a London university, and even trying his hand at English short story writing, Chandran’s youth seems at least an echo of Naipaul’s own. With that knowledge, one can take the disclaimer that “This book is an invention. It is not exact about the countries, periods or situation it appears to describe” and embark unfettered through the odyssey of Mr. Chandran’s life. Still, despite the promise of such a voyage, the journey often leaves the reader caught between empathy and apathy toward Willie’s exploits. Perhaps this ambiguity is exactly the effect Naipaul seeks to create.
Naipaul sews the reader into the seam between two lives, Willie Chandran’s and his father’s, and continues his entire novel in such a way that one always feels in the middle of things. Willie’s father, an Indian of the priestly Brahmin caste, watches as his life turns from a carefully imagined “life of sacrifice” into a middling existence in which his marriage to a woman of the lowest caste brings disappointment rather than the political symbolism he envisioned in his youth.
Willie Chandran begins life tangled between competing worlds: his father’s disdain for Willie’s mother, his mother’s crude attempts at affection, and the Canadian sensibilities of the mission school he attends. The novel flashes through cultures and geography like an ambitious globetrotter. Chandran often finds himself within one foreign culture endeavoring to understand it through further subcultures and imported enclaves of people. Willie’s story is thus that of a man caught between everything imaginable: points on the globe, ambitions, love, hate, family, and foreigners.
Naipaul extends the theme of tightrope-walking between dichotomies beyond the external forces acting on Willie and into the man himself. Chandran is the type of man one may only half like. Fear and blind desire motivate his actions with alarming frequency; his first encounter with Africa—he follows a girl there in an effort to run away from his own aimlessness—raises specters worse than those of the loneliness Chandran fought in his London university days. The unknown drives him mad: “I don’t know where I am. I don’t think I can pick my way back. I don’t ever want this view to become familiar. I must not unpack. I must never behave as though I am staying.” When Willie arrives in London he begins to despise the city for failing to meet his expectations. But when Willie arrives in Africa “its grandeur worried him. He didn’t think he would be able to cope with it.” He longs for greatness and splendor, but when he finds it he shies away.
Willie’s alternating bouts of capriciousness and inaction lead the reader to evaluate and re-evaluate her feelings towards him throughout the novel. The protagonist is reluctant in his own story; his indecision makes the geographical shifts of the novel seem tied to mere whims of chance. Yet, in all his floundering, Willie begins to grasp at some coherence for himself, some story on which to hang the fragments of his life. Disillusionment threatens each new dream of grandeur. Beyond Willie’s sense of disappointment at London, he feels “something like shame—for his gullibility.” He senses the disconnect between worlds and thus discovers that one can recreate the self in the same way a city might be created in a young boy’s imagination. Willie tells new stories about himself, ones of his own invention. By “playing with words, he began to remake himself.” As he does, a story about his life emerges that others accept. Belief, however, plays a very small role in their acceptance.
Everyone seems bound to accept his stories because most of the other characters in Half a Life play by similar rules. Individuals create different selves wherever Willie goes. In India, the missionaries create themselves on the covers of the magazines Willie reads. In the English “passing bohemian-immigrant life of London of the late 1950s,” everyone is somehow swirling on the edge of the glittering set in which Willie and his college friends move. Few hold good jobs. Many slide along a razor-thin line between the dazzling parties and ruin. The characters interacting most intimately with Willie are like Minotaurs—half men, half beasts. His half-African, half-Portuguese lover, Ana, moves in a circle of people trying to reconcile themselves to a world that presents no clear categories into which they can slip. In Africa, the estate owners pretend to the status of the full Portuguese, while most are only half, and many of the foremen on the estates have mixed blood in their veins. The prostitutes Willie encounters during his time in Africa, and the women he tries to see back in London always present multiple, apparently contradictory fronts. Thirteen-year-old African girls put on the face of lascivious, experienced women as they seduce the soldiers in makeshift bars. A London shopgirl presents a polished front behind her perfume counter, but shares her intimacy in the squalor of a bare-mattressed slum room.
The untidiness of Willie’s life, the dead ends of the narrative, the paths that lead to unimagined new worlds, all capture the actual state of living a life with no discernible script, no predestined story that needs to be told. Still, the meandering plot and the ambivalence of Willie’s character tend to leave the reader in the middle of enjoyment and frustration. The act of reading Half a Life places the reader in a strange relationship to Willie Chandran. One feels the same perplexity that he does, and suffers from the same indecision that plagues his life. Finally, Naipaul leaves both the reader and Willie desiring something—some story—that has yet to be written. One of Willie’s London friends articulates what such a story would be like when he gives Willie advice on his own writing: “You should begin in the middle and end in the middle, and it should all be there.” Going back through the half-lives of the story, the incomplete nature of an individual life emerges in outline.
When Half a Life ends, one longs for more of the story, hoping that Willie will be able to overcome the past and break into a new life. The fact that the story ends before the end of Willie’s life, presumably a great deal before, must be observed in order to understand the unfinished glory of Naipaul’s project in Half a Life, and Willie’s project of living. Willie often muses on his father’s partial experience of the joys of life, the sense of his missing some key ingredient to life at its most essential. Over the forty years of Naipaul’s story, the son breaks some of his father’s forms, but the story feels a fragment of a whole. Naipaul tells a half-finished story, one that begins in the middle, ends in the middle, and contains within its folds the understanding of an uncompleted beauty, which, like a half-finished portrait, holds the promise and potential of greatness.