'Willie Chandran asked his father one day: "Why is my middle name Somerset?"' So begins Half a Life, the strange and chilling novel that V.S. Naipaul published in 2001 - thirty years or so after he first pronounced the novel a dying form. The story begins in the 1930s, in a South Indian princely state, where Willie's father embarks on a half-hearted and dubious rebellion against the 'servility' he sees all around him: against the false security of the maharajah's little state, against the pieties of his Brahmin family - 'foolish, foreign-ruled starveling priests'. He resolves 'to follow the mahatma's call', but chooses some unorthodox varieties of Gandhian sacrifice and civil disobedience. He decides to strike a blow against the evils of the caste system by taking 'the lowest person he could find' as his wife: a young woman from a 'backward' caste whose dark skin, 'coarse tribal features' and 'terrible rough voice' both repel and fascinate him. Meanwhile, he wages a low-level campaign of civil disobedience in the tax office where he works, destroying evidence of fraud - more, it seems, out of bloody-minded laziness than idealism. And so he finds himself not only miserable in his marriage and reviled by his family, but also facing prosecution for corruption. His reaction is to fall, 'as if by instinct, into the old ways': he walks barefooted and barebacked to the temple, and declares himself a mendicant.
LRB 4 November 2004 | PDF Download