Willie Somerset Chandran – the protagonist of this Naipaul book is named after the writer Somerset Maugham. The son of an educated Brahmin who, in an act of Gandhian renunciation, marries an impoverished, low-caste daughter of a radical, ‘ firebrand of the backwards’. Embarrassed by the failures of his father, Willie leaves to study in London, through a scholarship arranged through one of his father’s contacts. Full of dreams of becoming a writer, his experiences as a colonial in the London of the early 50s, he faces many disappointments. His first book of stories fail to take off, is sexually frustrated and haunted by feelings of inauthenticity. Willie eventually finds a semblance of peace with a young Portuguese-African, Ana, whom he follows to Mozambique. He spends 18 years there among the mulatto workers on the great estates, in this ‘half-and-half world’, inhabited by people suspended unhappily between the metropolis for which they long nostalgically and the rituals of the indigenous Africans from whom they feel alienated. But, in the end he is alienated here too and has only ‘half a life,. Naipaul’s facile ease with the language and the ease with which he deals with the loss of displacement, the turbulence of social hierarchies and the social legacies of colonization are wonderful. And though time has gone by, so many of these hierarchies are still so much entrenched in our society.
Taking the Time magazine 100 book list forward, I read the above 2 books on the Kindle. And both were disappointments – mono-dimensional and devoid of any characters or plot, they were well written but to me pointless. “Are you there, God?” is more of a young adult kind of book – which even today’s young adults may not find interesting! The only thing it did for me was to generate some nostalgia – some of the incidents were similar in my early teens more than 50 years ago!! As for Willa Cather – I had always seen this name on the list of great American writers. But this slow moving, almost static, tale of the Catholic church and the politics of the early Church in the western parts of the US, did not interest me at all. I could not progress very far and although curios as to how the death came, it was too far away and I had to abandon the book.
This is an author who has not let me down so far – from the first book I read (The good doctor), through ‘In a strange room’ and “Arctic Summer’, Galgut can evoke a quiet but disturbing atmosphere that is very rivoting for the reader. As in ‘The Good doctor’, this book explores the many conflicts and issues that face the period of transition in South African society. The ordinariness of the protagonist, Adam Napier, and his efforts to face the sudden joblessness brought about by the changing times rather than any fault of his, his encounter with an old school mate who he does not remember, his gradual involvement in this friend’s life, his encounter with the realities of the changing world around him are all recounted with skill and understanding. It leaves you wanting to race ahead and know what happens to Adam, far more than even many ‘who-dunnits’. Adam grows on you, his ideals, his simplicity and compassion, his gradual awakening to the realities around him – you feel unhappy that his innocence cannot last. A great book…..