Beyond belief in oneself

A novel of troubled self-invention from the newest Nobel Prize-winning writer

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Too often the Nobel Prize serves as the world's most prestigious gold watch, a $1 million retirement gift for trailblazers whose great work appeared decades ago.

Well, don't bring out the rocking chair for V.S. Naipaul. On Oct. 11, the Swedish Academy announced that he had won the Nobel Prize in literature. Two weeks later, he has published a new novel that demonstrates the currency of his skill and originality.

"Half a Life" tells the story of a young Indian man searching for identity in a world that offers him dazzling variety but nothing that fits comfortably.

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The novel opens when Willie Chandran asks, "Why is my middle name Somerset?" The answer to that simple question comes in a stunning chapter narrated by his Brahmin father, who was the inspiration for Somerset Maugham's "The Razor's Edge."

In a rash moment, motivated more by boredom than devotion, Willie's father heeded the mahatma's call to boycott his university education and violate India's caste system. He began courting an "untouchable," believing that the more repulsive and undesirable the object of his affection, the greater his sacrifice.

One complication led to another, until he found himself sitting in the temple, posing as a mendicant under a vow of silence, forced to sacrifice his life in order to save it.

"It sometimes happens that when you make a slip of the tongue, you don't want to correct it," he tells his son. "You try to present that what you said was what you meant."

Willie discovers that his father considers him only another disappointing element of "a strange life that fate had bestowed." It's a brilliant exploration of the crosscurrents of piety and selfishness, of what experts we are at dressing expediency in the vestments of piety.

Disgusted by his father's artificial devotion and repelled, despite himself, by his mother's low birth, Willie escapes to London. He knows little about the city beyond its name, but he's thrilled by the artistic and sexual possibilities of the bohemian culture of the 1950's.

Realizing he's free to present himself however he wants, he struggles to construct a history that will impress his fellow students. But the social rules of this new place, though remarkably different than the rigid system he left in India, are no less complex.

He stumbles through friendships and romances and even a modest writing career by clobbering together types and stories that give him a momentary sense of meaning.

In the book's final section, Willie moves to Africa with his Portuguese girlfriend, who claims she was attracted by the startling authenticity of his stories, stories he stole from classic Hollywood films. As civil war spreads through colonial Africa, once again he's plunged into a culture where identity is as plastic as it is flammable.

At just 200 pages, "Half a Life" is a story of remarkable economy, at once exotic and familiar, where wit and despair rumble beneath the surface. Naipaul writes with the haunting efficiency of an ancient legend - a brisk accumulation of simple actions and conversations that accrue to build something powerful and unsettling.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail charlesr@csmonitor.com.

Half a Life

By V.S. Naipaul Alfred A. Knopf 211 pp., $24

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