HALF A LIFE

By V.S. NAIPUAL Ė
New York: Vintage Book, 2001
ISBN # 0-375-70728-X (pbk)
211 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2016

Willie Somerset Chandran is speaking with a reporter. The reporter was interested in his middle name, Somerset, since he had heard that Willie had that name because of a personal connection with Somerset Maugham. Willie allows that itís true his middle name was after Maugham, but that he had never met him. Rather, his father had known him when Maugham was in India and since that relationship was important to Willieís family he had that name.

The reporter wishes to learn more about this, and the novel HALF A LIFE is what follows, as Willie narrates his own story.

His grandfather and father had both been holy men in India. Willieís grandfather had a secure job with the maharaja and brought his family to live in the big town. Then Willieís own father followed the career of his dad and even more successfully. Willie, however, was not willing to go that path.

However, Willieís father did tell him the story of his middle name. Willie Chandran had the middle name, Somerset, from a visit that Somerset Maugham made to India. He met Willieís father who told him his own story. His father had followed the course of his dad and even was more successful. He had taken a vow of silence.

Then Maugham showed up and his bosses asked him to take care of Maugham. However, since he had the vow of silence he decided to keep it. Maugham was impressed with his dedication and wrote about him in his book The Razorís Edge. Willieís Dad had left college when he was 18 and followed the Mahatma.

However, Willie regretted both his father and grandfatherís ways. He was not a holy man and he dropped the family tradition. The novel that follows is Willieís story.

He met a simple unlearned girl at the college he was attending. He was attracted to her and discovered her unlearned simplicity. So he hid the girl away. He got a job through his father in the land tax branch and continued his education in a mission school.

Willie began to write stories and these were getting him into trouble with the authorities since they tended to be critical of the Indian government and way of life. Finally, he wrote to contacts in England whom his father had made and he ended up with a scholarship in England. He was totally ignorant of England and most of the non-Indian world and tells us that he only knew two places in London Ė Buckingham Palace and the Speakerís Corner.

It was then 1956, and Willie realizes he would like to be a writer. He begins to meet people from his school connections and starts to write short scripts for BBC radio on various topics. They are decent and the radio folks like him. When people heard of his background and especially with his full name and the relationship with Willieís father to Somerset Maugham, they assumed they knew a lot about Willie. However, they didnít. Willie despised the lives of his grandfather and father and Willie and his mother despised Gandhi. He was in England precisely because he was the rebel in the family and was escaping their values and ways.

By 1958 Willie published a book of short stories, but his book was mainly ignored and Willie was concerned about his future and what will happen since his scholarship is about to end. However, he meets Ana, an African woman studying in England who contacted him because she was touched by his book. They meet and he falls in love with her and finally finishes school and goes off with her to Africa to try to make a life with her. For some reason Willie never identifies where they live in Africa, however, textual evidence suggests that it was in Mozambique before its independence from Portugal.

There are few details of his life with Ana; however he stays there and with Ana for 18 years. Ana is then in charge of the estate and they live quite well, but Willie seems always to be disenchanted with life and wishing . . . well, perhaps thatís the problem, Willie doesnít seem to have any idea of what it is he wants.

He does begin to wander from his marriage and has a rather torrid affair with one of his wifeís friends and has random sex with many young African women. Finally, ending up in the hospital at one point, he simple and bluntly tells his wife that he no longer loves her and plans to leave her. Ana isnít at all surprised, but the reader never really knows what she actually thinks about Willie and their marriage (so to speak) of 18 years.

In any case, Willie just leaves and seeks refuge with his sister, who like him, had left India, and Willie moves in with her in a suburb of Berlin.

Willieís life path is quite strange. He became a rebel from the form of life of his father and grandfather, but never seems to have been able to find a life for himself or to really discover who he ever wanted to be.

Willieís story is certainly fascinating, yet very sad. He had the energy and seemingly talent to have created a meaningful and happy life for himself. Yet he seemed to lack the ability to believe in anything but the moment, and lived a life that seemed to simply run from day to day without much hope, planning or meaning. Willie is a very sad character, indeed.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu