What Naipaul knows

Frank Kermode

  • Half a Life by V.S. Naipaul
    Picador, 214 pp, £15.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 330 48516 4

Willie Chandran, full name Willie Somerset Chandran, is the son of a somewhat eccentric minor official in an Indian state. The novelist, conscientiously researching his final masterpiece, The Razor’s Edge, had visited the maharajah and taken notice of Willie’s father, who happened to be doing penance and, on the model of Gandhi, observing a vow of silence in the temple courtyard. Though he comes from a line of priests, Willie’s father is not, as Maugham may have supposed, a man of spiritual depth, being more interested in the fame of the visitor after whom he named his son than in his religious investigations. Maugham’s title alludes to a metaphor from the Upanishads, comparing the way of enlightenment to the sharp and narrow edge of a razor, a matter on which the penitent, even if he had been willing to speak, could probably have thrown little light. Between the novelist and his silent interlocutor there was plenty of room for misunderstanding, and despite the even-tempered course of Naipaul’s opening pages we already hear a familiar overtone: Occidental attempts to understand India have always failed, and the tragedy of that failure is that Indians, adopting European assumptions without being able to abandon their own, have to live in a perpetual intellectual muddle. Foreign critics begin to name Willie’s father as the spiritual source of his novel, and he derives some local celebrity from this. But when it comes to the point Maugham, though pleased to have Indian friends, politely abstains from doing anything for Willie when he gets to London.

As a young man Willie’s father had neglected his education and perversely taken up with a low-caste, extraordinarily dull girl, flouting his father’s choice of bride. He broke his vow of sexual abstinence, taken on the model of Gandhi, and so Willie was born, and also his sister Sarojini. Attending the mission school, Willie at first hopes to go to Canada and become a missionary, for the sake of what seemed a more interesting and better paid life than any he could hope for at home. However, he is already writing stories. By the munificence of another English grandee who had visited his father’s ashram, Willie goes to London and takes up a place at a college of education.

All this, and Willie’s experiences in London, first in a ‘bohemian-immigrant’ milieu, then in a hardly less shoddy publishing world, is recounted with the expected, quietly comic skill, with a lot of discreet detail and only the slightest of sneers. Willie’s London friends are expertly sketched: a Jamaican who argues that black genes are recessive, so that intermarriage would eliminate blackness in a couple of generations; another whose ambition it is to be the first black man to have an account at Coutts. Willie does pretty well, and begins the business of remaking himself by writing. Seeing through the ‘quaint rules’ of his college, he begins to see through the quaint rules of his old life in India, deciding that they no longer bind him. He begins to write little scripts for the BBC. His stories are liked for being ‘India and not India’. He makes some of them into a book, which is accepted for publication.

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