V.S. Naipaul has gained fame as a literary prophet of the lost. His characters abandon their homelands; they are ragouts of caste, race and class; they embody post-colonial angst. While they always manage to muddle through, their lives never fully vindicate the chaos wrought by the globalization that began in earnest with Vasco de Gama.

Half a Life, his first novel in six years, is true to Naipaul form. It spans four continents; its characters are mulattos, half-castes, people of almost every imaginable mixture of lineages. Even Somerset Maugham, that archetype of the international author, makes a brief, stammering appearance.

The novel's protagonist, Willie Chandran, is himself a hybrid. His father is an Indian Brahmin who, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's abhorrence of caste, marries an Indian "backward" and has two ill-fated children by her: Willie and his self-righteous sister, Sarojini. To escape his scorned family, Willie attends university in England. There he enters a culturally diverse but rather squalid bohemian scene and enjoys brief promise as a writer.

But the novelty of this identity soon fades. As Willie approaches the void of graduation from college, he falls in love with Ana, a woman of "mixed African background." Together, they move to her home in an unnamed Portuguese colony in Africa. Yet Willie remains unfulfilled. The colony's collapse at the hands of indigenous guerillas mirrors the collapse of Willie's illusions. Finally he must admit, "I have been hiding too long." Structurally, Half a Life is arguably two half-books: a writer's bildungsroman and a document of colonial decay. The seam is not perfect: once we have developed a fondness for Willie (and especially for his shy, bungled forays into sex), the book abruptly puts the colony at center stage. Like its characters, the novel itself is a sum of discordant halves.

Naipaul's fascination with themes of fragmentation is no accident. An Indian born in Trinidad, he was educated at Oxford and has traveled widely in Africa, the Islamic world and India itself. In Willie Chandran, as in many of Naipaul's protagonists, we see much of Naipaul himself.

Naipaul is one of the first truly international writers, and with over 20 books to his name, one of the most prolific. With Half a Life, he proves that he remains among the best.

Kenneth Champeon, a writer, has lived in India and now lives in Thailand.

 

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