Bohemia by V.S. Naipaul (Short Fiction review)

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Continuing my desire to read more short works by authors on my must-read list but who somehow never seem to move up from there, this week I chose a short story from V. S. Naipaul's book, Half a Life. I know Naipaul has many fans and haters - his public comments tend to drive readers to polar camps, and whatever I think of the man he is, I do want to read his books. And since I came across one of his short stories at The New Yorker, I decided to start with that.

I'll say right upfront that I wouldn't exactly recommend this piece, simply because it is a chapter from a novel, than a standalone story, although I should say it functions somewhat decently as a single story. I did however sense the lack of an ending or a closure when I finished the story, which is what prompted me to go looking for information about it. The book, Half a Life, from which Bohemia has been shared, is a story of an Indian guy going to study in London - initially as someone very passive about his surroundings, but soon becoming very interested in what happens around him and opinionated in all kinds of matters. Bohemia probably belongs to part 1 of the book - where his passive lifestyle is explored and the seeds for his change are being sown.

Since I'm not trying to recommend this story, I'm going to say about what I felt once I finished it, and whether I'm any more or less inclined to read his books. Despite its inconclusive ending, Bohemia was a nice story - a good introduction to Naipaul's style of writing and many of the writing traits that I believe he is known for. The protagonist of the story, Willie Somerset Chandran has been named by his father after an English cricketer. He only knows of two places in London - Buckingham Palace and Speakers' Corner - both places eliciting vivid images of grandeur and dazzle in his mind based on what he had learned of them, but both falling far short of his expectations. After blindly siding himself for years with one or the other side of any home issues because his family probably sided on the same side, in London, he found himself free to invent himself from scratch - free to chose his own ancestry and twist the truth to emphasize half-truths.

He began to get friendly with a Jamaican student of mixed parentage, Percy, who teaches him how to live in London. Although Willie is initially somewhat dependent on Percy, he soon transforms into someone capable of making his own decisions and cheating on his friend. It's interesting how the transformation came about - as a result of one's societal ego - when Willie decided that based on their ancestries, he was definitely a few rungs above Percy and hence he had no reason to feel secondary or like a follower. I had to shake heads at that because that was so typical of some people in a society that visibly demarcates people according to their differences by financial standing, race, caste, etc. (Like thinking - oh, since he's from a lower caste, I can walk like a king around him and learn things from him without feeling uneducated.) Although this isn't mentioned in the story, my guess is that Willie grew up feeling and believing in the superiority of his Brahmin caste over other castes in India.

By the end of the story, I realized that I despised Willie. I got especially turned off when this guy felt cool with feeling up his friend's girlfriend right in front of the friend, and I'm not sure I expected his character to feel okay with that. I don't know whether reading about his life is going to be worthwhile, but I should say I am impressed by Naipaul's perceptions in the story. I liked how he explained the beginning of Willie's desire to learn more about the world around him. He decided to start with reading the paper. Though soon, Willie realizes that reading the paper is like reading a series - there is no way to get context unless you read the previous related articles of a particular news item. When he then goes to an encyclopedia for refuge, he gets lost in the tons of data out there.
He began to read about the Egyptian crisis in the newspapers, but he didn't understand what he read. He knew too little about the background, and newspaper stories were like serials; it was necessary to know what had gone before. So he began to read about Egypt in the college library, and he floundered. It was like moving very fast and having no fixed markers to give an idea of position and speed. His ignorance seemed to widen with everything he read.

I did close the book with a greater desire to check out Naipaul's books. I enjoyed his comic take on certain matters, and the sense of lost, self-discovering characters lacing the book, even though Willie just rubbed on my bad side. I wonder if that's because of a lack of context, and whether knowing more about Willie might change that.

I read this book online on the The New Yorker. Go ahead and read it. Check out more of Naipaul's stories here.


7 comments:

Helen Murdoch said...

I think I tried to read a Naipal book once and it didn't really work for me. But I definitely feel like I should try again

Zohar said...

Is this part of a bigger book or some sort of a short story written to promote the main book? 


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Jenn said...

I like your dedication to hunting down short fiction. I love short stories, but I don't seek them out all that often. You've definitely made me want to change that about my reading habits.

Ti said...

I have been reading lots of Murakami and there are times where I feel as if I have read a passage before. Sure enough, so many of his novels stem from short stories. That said, I do believe there is a place for short fiction, but it's got to be a talented author who can pull it off. To be able to pull you in and then sum it up enough for you to feel satisfied in just a short amount of time is a feat in and of itself. 

JoV said...

I have got Half a live on my shelf so I'll skip the details for the time being but I agree with you that this is going to be a good read. :)

Jen @ The Well Read Fish said...

I've had this book on my shelf for AGES and haven't been able to bring myself to picking it up. . . 

Athira / Aths said...

It is part of a bigger book. It is actually one chapter from the book titled Half A Life.


(Sorry it took me so long to reply. :) Just clearing out my email backlog.)