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.
LRB 6 September 2001 | PDF Download