Half a life
Another book – another immigration story. Should I start to question why I’m always so drawn to this kind of thing?
This time though, I can’t say I was all that excited. Not that it’s a bad book, it’s just that the characters are so bland and the story is so generic, that I really didn’t care all that much. The first chapter (there’s 3 of them) is a short recap of how Willie got middle name (Somerset – obviously after Somerset Maugham) and, implicitly, a short recap of this father’s life. Turns out, his father is quite despicable – he’s trying to present his choices and his actions as some kind of sacrifice, continually comparing himself to the Mahatma, when, in fact, they are spiteful, greedy and cowardly. There is some kind of humour in this very obvious gap between perception and reality, and Willie starts to sense it – and also stars to resent his father and wish to leave.
As chance would have it, he manages to get a scholarship at a second-rate (or third) college in London, and quickly leaves his whole family behind – thus we arrive at chapter 2: Willie in England (not the actual name of the chapter). Because his college is mainly for immigrants, he moves around in kindred circles and doesn’t seem to suffer from too much of a culture clash. Sure, he’s lost and out-of-place, but he’s also got Percy Cato, a Jamaican, to guide him through the bohemian Notting Hill – and Percy’s “girlfriend” to give him his first sexual experience (thus sort of a life-long kink is born: Willie will always be attracted to his friends’ girlfriends). Luckier than most, he meets an Englishman whom he befriends and who helps him get a short story book published (and he does make it sound like a pretty easy thing to do). Through this book he meets Ana – and we move on to chapter 3: Willie & Ana in Africa. Ana is from an unnamed Portuguese African colony (Wikipedia assumes it’s Mozambique – unfortunately I can’t say I assumed anything), they connect and they move together to her family’s estate. In the eighteen years he spends there, Willie doesn’t seem to learn much – he’s accepted in the community, he supports his wife but lets her dictate what is to be done around the property, he has affairs and he gets caught up in the guerilla war that presumably tries to shake off the Portuguese rule. He never really becomes a local – he’s of a higher class and doesn’t understand – doesn’t even try – much of the local culture, he obsesses over sexual satisfaction (musing on how little of it his father must have known and how little he himself knows) and he seems to be generally clueless. It all ends with him leaving Ana behind and moving away to his sisters’ in Germany (she has, in the meantime, realized her father’s prophecy and made an “international marriage”).
And…that’s it. Really. Well, maybe there’s more – a whole bunch of reviews are ready to tell you that (OK, so The Guardian wasn’t all that into the book, but it does seem a bit like they’re not all that into the author; but NYT’s Michiko Kakutani – who, I understand, has a pretty mean reputation – seems to have loved it quite a bit) but I honestly think this is it: a heartless little story about a man who doesn’t know what to do with this life. There’s a follow-up about Willie in Berlin (Magic Seeds), but I don’t really intend to read it. Half a life felt a lot like half a book, too.