Half A Life by V.S. Naipaul - The Story of Willie Chandran

Half a Life by V.S. Naipaul
The story of Willie Chandran

Naipaul, V. S. Half A Life. New York: Vintage, 2001.

Needless to say, I was drawn to V. S. Naipaul’s novel by its reference to W. Somerset Maugham.
The protagonist’s name is Willie Chandran, with Somerset as his middle name. The story is that by a series of twisted circumstances Willie’s father became a mendicant with a vow of silence when Maugham was visiting India to gather materials, which are later included in The Razor’s Edge.

The circumstances have nothing at all to do with spirituality, but Maugham got his impressions and wrote what he wanted to see. It is thus Willie’s father unwittingly became a famous character that he had to live up to for some time, a projection of himself that slowly becomes him.

This is how Naipaul imagines the meeting:

The principal was also director of the state’s tourist publications and sometimes showed distinguished people around. He shot me glances of pure hatred—every kind of old anxiety came back to me then—and was for passing me by, but the writer’s friend, Mr. Haxton, asked about me. The principal said, making an irritated, dismissing gesture with his hand, “Nobody, nobody.” But Mr. Haxton pressed, and asked why people were bringing me gifts. The principal told them I had taken a vow of silence, and had already been silent for a hundred days. The writer was very interested in that. The principal saw, and in the way of people of his kind, and as a good servant of the maharaja’s tourist department, he began to say what he thought the old writer and his friend wanted to hear. He fixed his hard hating eyes on me and boasted about my priestly family and our temple ancestors. He boasted about my own early career, the bright prospect I had. All of these things I had mysteriously given away for the life of the ascetic, living in the courtyard, dependent on the bounty of pilgrims to the temple.

I was frightened of this eulogy by the principal. I thought he was plotting something nasty, and I looked away while he spoke, as though I didn’t understand the language he was speaking.

The principal said, biting hard at each word, “He fears a great punishment in this life and the next. And he is right to fear.”

The writer said, “What do you mean?” He had a bad stammer.

The principal said, “Aren't we all every day both paying for past sins and storing up punishment for the future? Isn’t that the trap of every man? It is the only explanation I have for my own misfortunes.”

I ignored the rebuke in his voice. I didn’t turn back to face him.

The writer and his friend came again the next day, without the principal. The writer said, “I know about your vow of silence. But will you write down some answers to some questions I have?” I didn’t nod or make any gesture of assent, but he asked his friend for a pad and he wrote on it in pencil, “Are you happy?” The question mattered to me, and I took the pad and pencil and wrote, with perfect seriousness, “Within my silence I feel quite free. That is happiness.”

There were a few more questions like that. Quite easy stuff, really, once I had got into it. The answers came to me without any trouble. I rather enjoyed it. I could see that the writer was pleased. He said to his friend, speaking quite loudly, as though because I wasn’t speaking I was also deaf, “I feel this is a little bit like Alexander and the brahmin. Do you know that story?” Mr. Haxton said with irritation, “I don’t know the story.” He was red-eyed and grumpy that morning. It might have been because of the heat. It was very bright, and the bleached stone of the temple courtyard gave off a lot of heat. The writer said with an easy malice, and without a stammer, “No matter.” Then he turned to me and we did a little more writing. (29–31)

Later on in the story, Willie’s father contacts Maugham trying to get him to help send Willie to England:
The famous writer after whom Willie was named was now very old. After some weeks a reply came from him from the south of France. The letter, on a small sheet of paper, was professionally typewritten, in narrow lines with a lot of clear space. Dear Chandran, It was very nice getting your letter. I have nice memories of the country, and it is nice hearing from Indian friends. Yours very sincerely... There was nothing in the letter about Willie. It was as though the old writer hadn’t understood what was being asked of him. (46)
When Willie gets to England by other means, he tries writing Maugham again:
A few days later there came a letter from the great writer after whom Willie was named. It was on a small sheet of Claridge’s paper—the very hotel from where Krishna Menon had set out on his short walk to the park that afternoon, no doubt to think about his United Nations speech about Suez. The letter was typewritten, double-spaced and with wide margins. Dear Willie Chandran, It was nice getting your letter. I have very nice memories of India, and it is always nice hearing from Indian friends. Yours very sincerely... And the shaky, old man’s signature was yet carefully done, as though the writer felt that was the point of his letter. (55)

Being the famous writer’s namesake does not carry Willie very far. Maugham the great writer comes out as distant and false. Having found what he needs, he moves on. Why shouldn’t he?

Here direct references to Maugham end.

I have to say I was several times tempted to put down the book. The language is dull, the characters sordid. The general flatness makes me lose track of who is talking.

However, at a certain point the book picks up.

I have a suspicion that for different people this certain point would not be the same, and for some, there would not be a certain point at all.

In a way, this book is about how one is being drawn unwittingly into circumstances that one has no control of, living a life without aim, afloat in a sea of no purpose, like Willie’s father and Willie after him. The irony is in how one is projected by the outside world, a boundary firmly drawn and unbreachable, images that fail to coincide. This reminds me of Maugham’s formulation of isolation and the impossibility of communication, in the manner of E.M. Forster’s “Only connect...”
I myself stand on one side and the rest of the world on the other. [1]

Each one of us is a prisoner in a solitary tower and he communicates with the other prisoners, who form mankind, by conventional signs that have not quite the same meaning for them as for himself. [2]

The Far Side by Gary Larson
The Far Side by Gary Larson

Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house. [3]
However, Ana’s attraction to Willie is precisely about the possibility of generalizing experience, of reaching to this inner world in spite of histories, background, identities, events, gender, race.
I feel I had to write to you because in your stories for the first time I find moments that are like moments in my own life, though the background and material are so different. It does my heart a lot of good to think that out there all these years there was someone thinking and feeling like me. (116)
The feelings remain the same, though dressed in different costumes.

The brutality of this revelation lies in the origin of Willie’s stories, borrowed from other books and reworked from old Hollywood movies. The deepest, most genuine emotions, selfhood, is nothing but a projection of the popular.

Naipaul’s characters are several layers more withdrawn than Maugham’s. Willie, an Indian with English education who is gradually losing his mother tongue transferred to Africa living among Portuguese in their colonial land, fails to find his home and identity, which he comes to realize at the end of having spent half of his life.

As he goes through life, every identification is being stripped from him.
While the Mediterranean went by, and the other passengers lunched and dined and played shipboard games, Willie was trying to deal with the knowledge that had come to him on the ship that his home language had almost gone, that his English was going, that he had no proper language left, no gift of expression. (124)
Seeing through his eyes, people that come into his life remain shadows, out of focus, as if passing through a half conscious mind.

Though at as low a point in mid-life as Jeanne in Maupassant’s Une vie, no redemption seems likely to come to Willie in Berlin, living the life of his sister, nor do Ana’s final words sound encouraging.
Perhaps it wasn’t really my life either. (211)

How to cite this:

Half a Life at AbeBooks


[1] Maugham, W. Somerset. Mrs. Craddock. London: Heinemann, 1902. 372. Print.

[2] Maugham, W. Somerset. "The Happy Man." Cosmopolitans. London: Heinemann, 1936. 22. Print.

[3] Maugham, W. Somerset. The Moon and Sixpence. London: Heinemann, 1919. 178–9. Print.