Monday, March 3, 2008

Naipaul's Half a Life

Whichever book of Naipaul’s I read, I am struck by the ease with which he writes. This book, in which Willie Chandran learns about his “tainted” origins in India, comes of age in England and buries himself in Portuguese Africa for 18 years, is no exception.

Whatever you think of Naipaul and his politics, you have to admire his writing genius, the command he has over his writing, his unwavering, assured confidence. Although sometimes I am not sure whether the awe his style inspires in me is merely my own reaction to his stature and position in the world of literature. Would I accept without question similar techniques from a novice or less-acclaimed writer? Possibly, yes. Consider for instance how (smoothly and effortlessly) he changes the narrative voice in this book (3 times, in fact):

And this was the story Willie Chandran’s father began to tell. It took a long time. The story changed as Willie grew up. Things were added, and by the time Willie left India to go to England this was the story he had heard.
The writer (Willie Chandran’s father said) came to India to get material for a novel about spirituality. This was in the 1930s…I was doing penance for something I had done, and I was living as a mendicant in the outer courtyard of the big temple…
About 30 pages later:

This was the story that Willie Chandran’s father told. It took about 10 years. Different things had to be said at different times.
The omniscient, third-person voice takes over the story-telling for the next 100 or so pages again, after which,

And just as once his father, had told Willie about his life, so now, over many days of the Berlin winter, in cafés and restaurants and the half-empty flat, Willie began slowly to tell Sarojini of his life in Africa.

In keeping with the nature of those who believe in the caste system (such as Willie’s father), Naipaul unwaveringly, unself-consciously and unapologetically depicts the raw, sordid, unsanitized details of the upper/lower caste relationship.

It was the kind of voice I associated with people of her kind. I thought it might have been something that as a scholarship girl she had left behind…

…All my anxiety, when little Willie was born, was to see how much of the backward could be read in his features. Anyone seeing me bend over the infant would have thought I was looking at the little creature with pride. In fact, my thoughts were all inward, and my heart was sinking.

A little later, as he started to grow up, I would look at him without saying anything and feel myself close to tears. I would think, “Little Willie, little Willie, what have I done to you? Why have I forced this taint on you?” And then I would think, “But that is nonsense. He is not you or yours. His face makes that plain. You have forced no taint on him. Whatever you gave him has disappeared in his wider inheritance.”
The cold, self-centered, dysfunctional father is unable to see his own son as a normal human being full of prospects, potential and inherent worth. Willie the hybrid, bereft of his father’s help and guidance and unable to look up to his dad, looks towards the mission school for direction and support. To me, Willie’s life, his search to find his place in this world – all are a fitting metaphor for the social and political, historical and modern-day relationships between the upper and lower castes/classes in Indian society.

The other characters of note in this book are Ana and Sarojini—women who come across as stronger than Willie. Their half-lives are perhaps more wholesome than Willie’s half a life.

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