A Critique of Naipaul's Half a Life: Searching for Identity in Limbo

Dr. Asha Choubey, Lecturer, Post-Graduate Department of English, Kaya Mahavidyalaya, Bareilly


Per tai difetti, non per altro rio,
semo perduti, e sol di tanto offesi,
che sanza speme vivemo in disioÈ.
[For such defects, and not for other guilt,
Lost are we and are only so far punished,
That without hope we live on in desire.] 04.042

E vegno in parte ove non che luca.
[And to a place I come where nothing shines.] 04.151 ( Dante Divinia Comedia iv )

Limbo is a state suffered by the uprooted, the marginal and the exiled. Women have been long considered to fall in this category but women are not the only sufferers. The displacement and dispossession that immigrants are subjected to, bring them into a limbotic position, the agony of which aggravates when all efforts of assimilation are thwarted. Caught up in limbo the immigrants lose not only their native place but also their identity. All their efforts at assimilation then are directed towards their search for a face, attrition of heritage language striving towards acculturation. Taking an overview of world literature in December 1999 at a seminar in Bareilly, Prof. Mohit K. Ray said that quest for identity is going to be a major recurring theme in literature the world over, for some years to come. Quest for identity has a broad spectrum meaning and it has been manifested in various ways in the will to exist despite all odds and to survive all odds. This will takes many names and it is very important in fact, one of the most important factors in the life of an individual as well as that of a nation and a race. The literature of diaspora focuses on the dislocation of an individual or race and consequent alienation. Alienation leads to a sense of loss but life consists not in losing but in the rediscovery of self. Naipaul the 'literary circumnavigator' (the Nobel citation from the Swedish Academy, Thursday October 11, 2001.) of contemporary times has this rediscovery as his recurrent theme. Critics have spoken of his feeling of congenital displacement of having been born a foreigner a citizen of an exiled community on a colonised island,without a natural home except for an India to which he often returns, only to be reminded of his distance from his roots. Naipaul's protagonists grow away from their native culture and their growing up depends on their growing away.

In a room full of strange faces, even a mirror comes as a relief because therein one can see a familiar face. Half a Life is the story of a race in search of a familiar face in the mirror; the irony however lies in the fact that even the mirror reflects a face which is not recognisable. Through the story of William Somerset Chandran Naipaul presents the ironical existence of diaspora. The theme of dislocation and consequent loss of identity has been a recurring one in the literature of Diaspora Naipaul seems to be a champion of this issue. Ganesh Ramasumair's ( The Mystique Masseur) search for roots takes him to various stages of transformation and finally the face that he could discover was that of G. Ramsay Muir. Mohan Biswas's (A House for Mr. Biswas) search for a house is a metaphor for his search for his own place/face in the mirror. Half a life is apparently a record of Willie Somerset Chandran's quest for identity.

The novel opens with the beginning of Chandran's search for his roots. Willie asks his father, 'Why is my middle name Somerset?' ( Naipaul 2001:1 All subsequent references to this book are from this edition.) This question forms the very essence of a person's existence. The answer to this question brings into light the irony of Willie's existence and at the same time prepares the background of his half-life in half-made societies with people who are themselves leading a life which is half-discovered, half-realised and half-lived.

For Willie Somerset Chandran his name is his destiny. Half of his name does not belong to him, it is borrowed from the famous writer Somerset Maugham; his first name proclaims him as a Christian whereas his surname signifies his mixed ancestry. A probing look discovers the man is as much an amalgam of drastically different traits as is his name an admixture of different and even antagonistic streams.William's search for the roots takes him backward because his roots are entwined with those of his father's. His story is set in post-independence India, then in London and then he travels to a pre-independence African country which is closely modelled on Mozambique and then for a brief period in Berlin. The first thirty five pages constitute Willie's father's story, the next hundred and two pages are a record of Willie's struggle for existence in London and the remaining pages (apart from a brief tarriance in Berlin) record his life in Africa which may be appropriately described in Naipaul's term as the bush. Willie's travels bring him to many characters who are leading a half-life as exiles. He feels at home with people who are faceless because of the affinity he has with them. But these are all his chance acquaintances on whom he cannot depend whereas his incompleteness begins at home.

The son of a half-rebel Brahmin father and a low caste woman who is only a shadow of a person,Willie's negation of self begins in his childhood itself. His awareness of his mother's low caste and the resultant low status of his father instils a sense of shame in the boy but at the same time his resolve to survive forces him into a world of falsehood, a make-believe world. The truth about him was ugly hence he takes to falsehood with impunity and once he presents his projected image before the world, Willie starts living the image. Years agoWillie's father had also projected an image inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's call for sacrifice. He paid dearly when he was forced into marriage with a low caste woman whose very sight breeds repulsion in him. Because of his misplaced ideals he hadt o marry in haste only to repent it at leisure. Willie does not learn from his father's mistakes and allows history to repeat and even re-repeat itself. Negating history is a sin which brings its own punishment. Willie's father negated history and had to bear the punishment. Even as a child when Willie is asked to write an English composition he pretends he is a Canadian and writes an invented story which is based on the bits of life he has known through American comic books. Instead of narrating his life he recreates it with such imaginative skill that it becomes unrecognisable even to an insider. In the recreation of his story Willie negates his history. Willie, however, goes on inventing newer lies because of his hatred for his half existence. In attempting to free himself from this half-ness, Willie goes on creating worlds of falsehood and gets more stuck up in these creations of his own. Willie hates his parents -- more particularly his father, and this sense of alienation makes him 'a sojourner'. His father soon discovers this alienation and realises that in order to avert more harm the bird must be allowed to scale the skies. He reflects:

I used to think that you were me and I was worried at what I had done to you. But now I know that you are not me. What is in my head is not in yours. You are somebody else, somebody I don't know, and I worry for you because you are launched on a journey I know nothing of. (49)

Willie goes to London so that he discovers himself, finds out his face but ironically in his search for completeness he loses even the half life that was within his reach. In London for a while Willie is lost, as if in a limbo again. The education that he was getting was absolutely devoid of perspectives. He pursues everything half-heartedly:

The learning he was being given was like the food he was eating, without savour. The two were inseparable in his mind. And just as he ate without pleasure, so,with a kind of blindness, he did what the lectures and tutors asked of him, read the books and articles and did the essays. He was unanchored, with no idea of what lay ahead. (58)

'The history of immigration' writes Oscar Handlin, 'is the history of alienation and its consequences.... For every freedom won, a tradition lost. For every second generation assimilated, a first generation in one way or another spurned. For the gains of goods and services, anidentity lost, and uncertainty found.' (Quoted in Wheeler).

Floating in the bottomless sea of multiculturalism, for a while Willie seems to have found his ground when all of a sudden he comes to a realisation that he did not need to rebel for the simple reason that distance from his roots has given him freedom without asking. In search of his identity in a strange world Willie again projects a borrowed, make-believe identity and ventures to live the image once again.

…he adapted certain things he had read, and he spoke of his mother as belonging to an ancient Christian community of the subcontinent, a community almost as old as Christianity itself. He kept his father as a Brahmin. He made his father's father a 'courtier'. So playing with words, he began to re-make himself. It excited him and began to give him a feeling of power. (61)

In the process of settling down in the London life, Willie comes close to a few people, each of whom is leading a half-life in their own way. There is Percy Cato who was 'a Jamaican of mixed parentage and was more brown than black. '(61) Percy is in many ways like Willie. He is ashamed of his background and instead of presenting facts about his life, like Willie he believes in presenting fiction. He tells Willie that his father went to Panama as a clerk when Willie understands he is lying:

That's a foolish story. His father went there as a labourer. He would have been in one of the gangs, holding his pickaxe before him on the ground, like the others, and looking obediently at the photographer. (62)

Percy loves to dress immaculately. This excessive alertness about fashion seems to take its origin from the need to hide his not so ambitious background. Their fictional recreation of their lives as well a stheir overwhelming sense of dressing up provides these exiles a kind of shelter from their modest realities.

Sexual promiscuity is a facto rwitnessed in the third world immigrants who move from the parochial society which imposes sexual taboos to a liberal Western world which is not infested with such inhibitions. The process of adjustment in this respect bares before the immigrant,the narrowness of his native background to combat which he indulges in sexual excesses. Willie Chandran is a man doomed to live under a shadow. His cultural background and his awareness of his incompleteness has bred inhibition. Willie may hide himselfby projecting a false ancestry but he cannot kill his reality and at all crucial moments his background and his half-ness become apparent and give him away. His sexual frustrations are not his own; they are the frustrations of a society, of a race and of a culture. Willie is divided within himself in his bid to achieve assimilation or acculturation, which is the only option left to the immigrant in order to survive amidst cultural or imaginative schizophrenia, in this sense, a state of divided identity -- divided by culture, history, circumstance. Novelist Nayantara Sahgal defines this colonial schizophrenia in these words:

I am thinking of schizophrenia as a state of mind and feeling that is firmly rooted in a particular subsoil, but above ground has a more fluid identity that doesn't fit comfortably into any single mould.

The bohemian culture of Notting Hill is alien for Willie but not being able to define his own culture, he seeks to adapt to the Notting Hill culture in his bid to survive. Whatever freedom Willie attempts to enjoy here is unsatisfactory because it needs crutches for support. Even the girls Willie sleeps with are not his friends but the lovers of his friends. Quite like Eliot's Prufrock Willie keeps planning to declare his love before Percy and the world when June marries her childhood friend leaving both Percy and Willie in the lurch. Perdita who happens to be Richard's friend leaves Willie's side after the frustrated experience of one night.

Immigration threatens with the loss of heritage to preserve which an immigrant tries desperately to stick to his heritage food and language. Attrition of heritage language finds an important place in the colonised/immigrant mindscape. Existence is meaningless unless it is expressed appropriately and language is the tool and power of expression. Displacement brings dispossession of this power, which aggravates the sense of alienation. The immigrant is alway sat a disadvantage in a foreign land and his/her escape depends onthe degree of his adaptability to that which is essentially alien. In the process of initiation language becomes the most potent instrument to come to the immigrants' help. But an inability to forget the native language casts a shadow on the immigrant's prospects in his adopted country. None but Naipaul could understand the agony of losing one's language. In his Nobel lecture he revealed candidly the trauma of migration and consequent loss in these words:

The world outside existed in a kind of darkness; and we inquired about nothing. I was just old enough to have some idea of the Indian epics, the Ramayana in particular. The children who came five years or so after me in our extended family didn't have this luck. No one taught us Hindi. Sometimes someone wrote out the alphabet for us to learn,and that was that; we were expected to do the rest ourselves. So, as English penetrated, we began to lose our language. ( Naipaul. "Two Worlds." December 7, 2001. Released by the Nobel Foundation)

While travelling to Ana's African country from Southampton Willie's mind is occupied by the confusion that such frequent changes in the setting lead to:

He thought about the new languagehe would have to learn. He wondered whether he would be able to hold on to his own language. He wondered whether he would forget his English… 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 (132).

This loss of proper language becomes even more ironical in view of the fact that Willie is an emerging writer and a writer's very existence is dependent on his language. One also remembers that on the publication of his first book Willie was introduced as 'a subversive new voice from the subcontinent' (122). With his remigration to Africa Willie's voice itself becomes a prey to despotic forces. In her effort to overcome the sense of alienation Ana too enrols herself at a language school in England. The explanation she gives to her family shows the significance of the language issue in the study of diaspora:

I wanted to break out of the Portugese language. I feel it was that that had made my grandfather such a limited man. He had no true idea of the world.… In his mind because of the Portugese language, all the rest of the world had been strained away. And I didn't want to learn South African English, which is what people learn here. I wanted to learn English English. (154-155)

Willie fails to see his future in London when he has completed his studies. His immigrant,wanderer soul takes him to Ana's African country. From Asia Willie had come to Britain in search of an anchor but failing to find one he traverses to Africa which seems to bear more affinity than the West. Thus drifting away from one place to another, from one continent to another, Willie feels he is going to lose his language. Language has ceased to exist as a set of signifiers for Willie. Before he has completed thirty three years on this planet he has been forced by circumstances and his wanderlust to change three languages making him so confused that he does not know how to express himself. Quest for identity pushes the 'subaltern' towards silence.

The very basis and grounds of Willie's attraction to Ana is his want of wholeness. In Ana Willie discovers a kind of reciprocity. It is her half-ness that strikes a bond with Willie. While reflecting on Ana's admiration of his book Willie thinks: 'It was possible that she belonged to a mixed community or stood in some, other kind of half and half position' (124). Strangely this half-ness of Ana makes him forget his own lack. Her company allows him room to breathe, to push back the shadow of inadequacy which otherwise looms large on his life. The third person narrator says, 'and what was most intoxicating for Willie was that for the first time in his life he felt himself in the presence of someone who accepted him completely. At home his life had been ruled by his mixed inheritance. It spoilt everything.' (125)

Willie's fate as a flotsam becomes even worse in this African country where he expected to belong. The narrator/novelist's description of Willie's arrival in Africa is quite limbotic. Though this description is modelled on Mozambique Naipaul refrains from giving this country a name. This anonymity is intentional and it is a device to intensify the sense of limbo. One only knows that Willie arrives 'at a little low built concrete town.' (134) and he decides that he shall not make an abiding stay here, 'I don't know where I am. I don't think I can pick my way back. I don't ever want this view to become familiar. I must not unpack. I must never behave as though I am staying' (135). Walking in the streets in this town he feels he is 'walking as if in wilderness' (134). Willie becomes a 'Nowhereman'; he does not belong anywhere. Lack of the sense of belonging makes him indecisive and despite initial reluctance he stays for eighteen years. Describing his lot to Sarojini (Willie's sister) he remembers that in Africa instead of succeeding in finding a place for himself, he had lostwhatever little autonomy he had in London. In London at least he was known as Willie Chandran but in Africa he becomes simply 'Ana's London man.' (145)

The loss of identity, sense of alienation and exile is the lot of the mixed, unpedigreed class. The stigma of being a second rate citizen hangs around Willie like the albatross (The Ancient Mariner) around the ancient mariner's neck. The mariner however, got respite due to the slimy creatures in the sea, Willie gets temporary relief due to some slippery substance which awakes him to the futility of all his efforts in a half-made society. In Africa Willie gradually finds some solace in the realisation that he is not the only one bearing the burden of the albatross, there are many like him who are infested with a sense of double exile. He discovers he is in a half-and-half world (160) with 'half-and-half friends' (162) who had come to reconcile with their position as 'people of the second rank.' (160) There are the Correias, Ricardo and the estate manager of Carla Correia -- Luis and his wife Graca. These people are living a Caliban like existence in Mozambique. There are the Noronhas however who are pure Portuguese -- the colonisers. The Correias are exploited by a Portuguese great man as Caliban was used by Prospero. He was taught language, Correias are given the taste of money and of glamour that money can buy. They are used as scapegoats and once they have served the cause of this great man they are shown their right place as second rank citizens. This great man remains anonymous because the name does not matter; he represents the empirical forces. InBerlin describing the plight of Correias to Sarojini Willie says:

To destroy a Portuguese like himself would have been to break caste, according to the code of the colony, and to become disreputable. There was no trouble at all in throwing a man of the second rank into darkness, someone from the half-and-half world, educated and respectable ands triving, unusually knowledgeable about money, and ready for many reasons to do whatever he might be required to do. (74)

Despite all adverse circumstances Willie still feels much at home among the Africans. 'In Africa I had after a while let those London lies drop,in our half-and-half group they seemed to have no point.' (179) For a while at least Willie seems to have come to terms with his past, with himself.

The dilemma that lack of the sense of belonging infuses is ironically the lot of the coloniser as well. Graca, the beautiful wife of Luis, stays back in Africa when the Portuguese leave the country. Graca is pure Portuguese but she is a third generation migrant. Her grandfather had come to Africa with the coloniser and he had stayed back. Now Graca has been born and brought up in Africa so she belongs here but her children go back to Portugal where they have to give documentary proof of their Portuguese identity. Loss of identity is then, an inevitable evil of colonisation which afflicts both sides -- the coloniser as well as the colonised. Willie comes to see this plain truth in time and decides to call it a day. For years he has allowed himself to become easy victim to slippery substances but on a rainy day when he slips after having spent eighteen years in Africa, he comes to realise that at forty-one, its high time to stop making a fool of himself. He wants to emerge out of the shadow of the image of 'Ana's London man', which was thrust on him without his knowing. He is resolved that there are not going to be any more slips for him. Resolutely he tells Ana: 'I mean I've given you eighteen years. I can't give you any more. I can't live your life any more. I want to live my own.' (136) Ana is in the same boat and she knows the agony too well. She has herself been leading a borrowed life. She tells Willie: 'Perhaps, it wasn't really my life either.' (128)

Willie's rejection of a vicarious existence has been seen as 'coming of age' of Naipaul's hero. The protagonists of Naipaul's fiction may be different persons but there may be sensed a thread of continuity in their fate and their limbotic status. Willie in Naipaul's twelfth novel may be in many ways different from Mohun Biswas in A House for Mr.Biswas, Ganesh Ramsumair in The Mystic Masseur and Ralph Singh in The Mimic Men but essentially they are all one as they present different aspects of the same cultural mindset. Naipaul once said, 'all my work is really one; I'm really working one big book'. All his major protagonists suffer the tragedy of displacement ands eparation from their land. Separation from land leads to disorder and the forlorn spirit's search for land is concomitant with its search for order. There is a host of writers whose theme revolves around the anguish and pain of diaspora but what makes Naipaul truly great is his sensibility. His fictional characters are moved not as much by anguish as by angst. His first hand experience of the same gives him an edge. His works derive their strength from his own life and the Swedish academy has very correctly recognised this in its Nobel citation: 'his authority as a narrator is grounded in his memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished.' (Thursday October 11, 2001)

Works Referenced

[Postimperial] [V. S. Naipaul]

Last Modified: 24 April, 2002