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Friday, 21 September, 2001, 15:15 GMT 16:15 UK
The return of Naipaul
VS Naipaul
He has won every major literary award but the Nobel prize
By BBC News Online's Alex Webb

"Write what you know" is the age-old advice to novelists.

VS Naipaul has taken it more literally than most, drawing again and again on his own experiences as a Trinidadian Indian moving to the old imperial centre, London, in the 50s.

And when Naipaul hasn't had direct experience of what he writes, he has been the most meticulous researcher and traveller, writing a series of brilliant books of reportage about India, Islam, the Caribbean and Argentina.

During his career Naipaul has honed his uniquely careful and considered prose style to the point where the Observer has called him "the greatest living writer of English prose".

But if there has been something like critical unanimity for his writing, his personal pronouncements have been much less liked.

Plaudits

He has been criticised - especially by disenchanted Trinidadians - as bigoted, self-important, snobbish and lacking in compassion. And a recent biographical study by Paul Theroux went to great lengths to try to convict the writer on all charges.

But Naipaul has never appeared to be interested in much except his writing, and in Half A Life - published seven years after his last novel - he has shown once again what the critical plaudits were for.

Half A Life
The story echoes Naipaul's own life
The story of an Indian who comes to England on a scholarship (once again, a life which echoes Naipaul's own) the novel takes the reader through the complexities of caste, the stresses and seductions 50s London and the last stages of Portuguese rule in an unnamed African country (clearly Mozambique).

In the novel, Naipaul writes about the sex life of the narrator Willie Chandran with unusual frankness - but also with a weary honesty which is the opposite of titillating.

The acute observation is still there, and with it the sensitivity to the hidden complexities of the characters and the untold stories behind the exteriors of people's lives.

Naipaul writes about a racially complex world with all the compassion and insight which is missing in some of his public pronouncements, and, above all, with the skill of a great story-teller.

Half A Life is a compact novel and a definite return to form after the sprawling A Way In The World - and it will leave Naipaul fans hoping there will not have to be a seven-year wait for the next one.

Half A Life is published by Picador

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