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The Permanent Outsider

Naipaul's latest isn't his best, but it's good enough for a Nobel Prize

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I usually regard literary prizes, as well as movie awards and lists of the "10 most livable cities," as being of arbitrary and dubious worth: awards of almost any sort, say more about ambitions and agendas of the presenters than about the qualities of the recipients. I may, however, be forced to reconsider my opinion: V. S. Naipaul is the newest Nobel laureate for literature. A consideration of Naipaul's career presents us with a formidable achievement that is singular in the rigor of its vision and breadth of scope. Half a Life may not be the best of Naipaul's novels, but it is very good indeed. This latest novel takes up the themes and issues raised in A Bend in the River, The Minute Men, Guerillas and other volumes of fiction and non-fiction. As in much of his earlier work, Naipaul continues his examination of identity and exile in unstable, often chaotic, post-colonial cultures: those countries created by the collapse of old-style European imperialism.

Naipaul is an Indian by birth who spent his formative years in Trinidad and Tobago, and his heroes reflect his past to a certain extent in that they are forever fumbling toward acclimation in a new and alien land. They roam from India, to Britain, Europe, Africa, and America. They may at times yearn for a sense of place, but no matter how long they remain in a society, no matter how well they learn (or imitate) the customs of their new country, they remain outsiders. They also develop a sense of permanent alienation which, in turn, forces them into an overly acute awareness, based in irony and suspicion, of the motives and customs of the natives among who they dwell so uneasily. In short, Naipaul's characters often retain an unconscious colonial outlook. Finally, they constantly question their own choices and decisions with a near-paranoid obsession of their own image, an image that requires constant restructuring so as to delay or influence the natives' judgments of their "character."

Willie Chandran, Naipaul's newest exile, wanders from his native India, to the bohemian, racially mixed subculture of 1950s London, to Portuguese East Africa in the late 1960s. Willie spends 18 years there, abandoning his well-to-do Creole wife as the colonial system collapses with Portugal's withdrawal from its last African possession. He comes to rest in Germany in the middle-class security provided by his sister Sarojini and her German husband, Wolf. Sarojini and Wolf, as it turns out, have retired from self-dramatizing careers as international revolutionaries.

Half A Life begins, however, with the story of Willie's father. Born a Brahmin in one of the semi-independent kingdoms under British "protection," the elder Chandran is a spoiled, restless college student during the time of Gandhi's passive resistance campaigns against the British Raj. Chandran rebels against his heritage and his family by taking up with a female student who is a member of a much lower caste. Of course, Chandran is drawn to her for this very reason, and she eventually becomes Willie and Sarojini's mother.

Chandran's most egotistical and public gesture of rebellion occurs prior to his marriage to "the lowest person I could find": he decks himself out as a Hindu mendicant, a mystic who lives according to vows of poverty, silence, and meditation. Ironically, Chandran stumbles into the notoriety that he so yearned for.

The agent of Chandran's fame (which, as it turns out, is fleeting) is the English novelist Somerset Maugham, who encounters Chandran by chance and uses him as the model for the character of the Hindu holy man in The Razor's Edge. This bestselling novel, published in the 1930s, tells the story of a wealthy, unsatisfied young American who found wisdom and the strength to live in silence, self-denial, and contemplation through the instruction of a Hindu sage. Because of the success of The Razor's Edge, Chandran, for a time, is a literary curiosity, sought out by western tourists and devotees of Maugham's fiction.

As his celebrity fades, Chandran settles into marriage and accepts the benefits of his Brahmin status in the form of various bureaucratic sinecures. Young Willie grows up with a distaste for his low-caste mother, and a suppressed, yet enormous loathing for his father. But, like the elder Chandran, Willie's first step along the road of true alienation occurs when he breaks with his family and flees to London.

Willie soon falls into the immigrant, multi-racial scene in London. Willie, however, never fully enjoys the possibilities of this fragile, interracial atmosphere. Instead, his half-formed sense of self and his strong sense of detachment are accentuated through a series of comically unsatisfactory sexual episodes. He trusts no one, but he experiences some success as a writer; he regularly turns out scripts for BBC Radio, and a collection of short stories is published through the influence of a well-connected Englishman who almost befriends Willie. The book receives little recognition, but one reader is so taken by Willie's prose that she becomes his first real love. Ana is Portuguese-African and identifies strongly with the stories, and then with the author. Feeling cornered and burned-out, Willie convinces Ana to return, with him in tow, to her African farming estate, which has been the seat of her family's power for generations.

Willie feels almost at home in colonial culture, probably because the members of this society are outsiders also. He finds, too, a degree of psychological comfort with Ana, who loves and trusts him, while he depends on "her luck." This arrangement crashes down as the colony plunges into guerilla warfare. Finally, as the Portuguese cut their losses and grant independence, Willie betrays Ana through various sad, grotesque sexual adventures. He flees once more, turning up at his sister's German home, telling her his story. He manages to articulate his failures and succeeds in developing some insight into his jumbled past. Naipaul, however, strongly suggests that insight is hardly the equivalent of wisdom.

Willie is symptomatic of what might be called "Naipaul's Disease," a malady originating in the waves of migration and cultural displacement that accompanied the break-up of the old European colonial system. Half A Life, and Naipaul's work as a whole, show that the end of European imperialism was a necessity, but that the post-colonial world has yet to achieve a tolerable measure of stability and direction. Naipaul has lived and traveled widely in this world, and the convincing force of his witness contradicts the soothing image of Western liberals, multi-national corporations, African despots, the United Nations, and the World Bank. V. S. Naipaul is the best, the truest kind of writer: he refuses to provide us with comforting lies.

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