V. S. Naipaul received the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories,” according to the announcement of the award by the Swedish Academy. That assessment describes Half a Life well. Like some other of Naipaul’s novels, it draws directly from personal experience to create a character who has no real native culture and because of it no means to govern or express his desires. He has no single history to call his own.
That character is Willie Somerset Chandran. Throughout the novel, Naipaul subtly uses names, which are after all the first clue to a stranger’s background, to convey cultural affiliation or estrangement among the characters. The novel in fact opens with Willie asking his father why his middle name is Somerset, because his classmates make fun of it. “Chandran” suggests to readers that Willie is ethnically an Indian, but that is not very specific, because Indians have emigrated from their homeland and settled through much of the world. Willie could be, by cultural upbringing, an Englishman, or American, or, like Naipaul himself, a Trinidadian. “Willie” and “Somerset” hint that he is English. He is not. Nor is he truly Indian, although born in India to Indian parents. The mixed sources of his names foreshadow his fate in the story.
Willie’s father answers the question by recounting his own life as a young man. Immediately, the reader is plunged into the intricacies of Indian caste, temperament, and post-World War II society. It is a bewildering world, at least for an American reader, partly familiar but mostly without recognizable rationale. Naipaul gives Willie’s father no first name, as if to imply that he is lost within his own culture. That seems to be the case. In a fit of nationalist enthusiasm, although a Brahman, he takes to heart the appeal of Gandhi to renounce the caste system. After a series of strange turns, the decision leaves him attached to a lower caste woman (a “backward”) and causes him to sit in front of a temple and observe a vow of silence. By chance, he attracts the attention, and misplaced admiration, of the English novelist William Somerset Maugham. Because he is mentioned in a book about the novelist’s visit to India, the father becomes a local celebrity and establishes an ashram, offering spiritual guidance. Other British pilgrims visit him, and his reputation widens.
The story explains Willie’s first and middle names: they are a tribute to the source of the father’s modest fame. Maugham’s influence is nonetheless a troublesome blessing. The family position is tenuous in Hindu society. Having married the lower caste woman, the father lost his Brahman privileges. Their son, Willie, and daughter, Sarojini, have an uncertain future, all the more so because they are educated in an English mission school and come under the influence of Western literature. They are outcastes in India.
Through his English contacts, the father secures for Willie a scholarship at an obscure teachers’ college in London. Upon arrival, Willie immediately discovers two devastating facts. First, his father’s English friends really want nothing to do with him. Second, although well schooled in English language and literature, Willie is worse off than a child in English society. He must learn the simplest things, such as how to make a request, and he constantly has to turn to encyclopedias to understand common bits of history and custom. He finds himself anchorless. His normal desires as a young man—his ambition and sexuality—have no reliable context for expression. As one chapter title puts it, he needs “translation.” Accordingly, he is susceptible to the influence of chance acquaintances.
The first is a fellow student, Percy Cato, a Jamaican of African heritage raised in Panama. His last name comes from a bygone fad among Caribbean families to assume the names of famous classical figures, in this case the Roman orator Cato the Elder. Percy is a shady figure, and through him Willie is introduced to a seamy bohemian subculture, where young Britons think it fashionable to have social and sexual relations with foreigners of color. He learns the mechanics of sexual intercourse but finds the act unfulfilling and does not learn how actually to talk to women. As he finishes his bachelor’s degree program, he also comes to recognize that he has no idea what to do with his...