Tuesday, 29 January 2013

HALF A LIFE by VS Naipaul


Further to my post VS NAIPAUL: I HAVE A LOT OF ISSUES, I bring you VS NAIPAUL: I’VE STILL GOT A LOT OF ISSUES, AND THEY’RE THE SAME ISSUES, AND THEY MAINLY ABOUT MY DAD AND ABOUT SEX.

This book tells the story of a young man from India who has a difficult relationship with his father, and who goes to England to study. This emigration was clearly a deeply formative event for Naipaul in his own life, and he writes about the cultural disjunction with sympathy and insight.

In England, receives a letter from a girl from southern Africa in response to some stories he has published which goes as follows:
At school we were told it was important for us to read, but it is not easy for people of my background I suppose yours to find books where we can see ourselves. We read this book and that book and we tell ourselves we like it, but all the books they tells us to read are written for other people and realy we are always in somebody else’s house . . .. .

He decides to marry her and move to Africa with her. He explains that in some way he simply trusts her:
. . .if you are not used to governments or the law or society or even history being on your side, then youhave to believe in your luck or your star or you will die.

After twenty years or so, which are passed over cursorily, he decides he is tired of her and leaves again for Europe.

I found much of this book in fact to be strangely cursory, a sort of half sketching out of half a life. In traditional Naipaul fashion, the energy only really picks up once he starts being creepy about women. Here is as a student visiting a prostitute, one of very few detailed scenes in the book:
He didn’t consider her face. He just followed her. It was awful for him in the over-heated little room with smells of perfurme and urine and perhaps worse. He didn’t look at the woman. They didn’t talk. He concentrated on himself, on undressing, on his powers.

I find it deeply hilarious when he says ‘it was awful for him,’ as if the woman is having a great time. It’s fascinatingly self-absorbed and unself-conscious. You wouldn’t think it could get any worse, but wait till he starts visiting prostitutes in Africa. These encounters are pretty much the only vivid recollections he brings of his twenty years on the continent. He is introduced to this world by an overseer, who assures him that in Africa eleven year olds enjoy being sexual active and that there is no such thing as underage. Here he is:
Take that little girl we just passed. If you stopped to ask her the way she would stick up her little breasts at you and she would know what she was doing.

So part lovely evocation of fractured modern identity; part Prostitutes I Have Known, it’s VS at close to his worst.

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