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A Search for Self; Life as Art

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A Search for Self

This is a triumphal time for V.S. Naipaul. He has finally won the Nobel Prize for which he has been on the short list for years. He certainly deserves it for his body of work, especially "A House for Mr. Biswas," "A Bend in the River," and "Amond the Believers: an Islamic Journey." In 1989, he published "A Turn in the South," a story of a trip he took to many cities in the South, including Charleston, S.C.; Tallahassee, Fla.; and Chapel Hill, N.C. He was scheduled to visit Richmond, but a blizzard kept him in Charlottesville on the day he had planned to come.

Now from Knopf has come "Half a Life" ($24), a slender story of Willie, the son of a high-caste Indian man and a woman who is in the "untouchable" caste. Willie's search for an identity takes him to England, Africa and Portugal. Everywhere, as he searches for who he is, he meets others born of mixed ethnic families and cultures. Everywhere they, also, seem to be trying to discover who they are.

As Willie drifts, he believes "that one day something would happen, an illumination would come to him, and he would be taken by a set of events to the place he should go."

It is hard to escape the belief that Naipaul has given us a metaphor for this "global" world we live in. Perhaps none of us understands today where he or she should go. This is a powerful metaphor, but, unfortunately, the characters in "Half a Life" never seem to become real. It is easy to feel sorry for Willie (and for all of us), but it hard to engage emotionally with him.

Life as Art

A true piece of artwork is one in which the colors are rich and the perception is of great depth. It can be a highway that leads to universal understanding. If this is a definition of a art, then Catherine Cusset's novel, "The Story of Jane"(Simon & Schuster, $25) is true art.

"The Story of Jane" is a riveting novel about a young woman named Jane Cook who steps outside of her apartment one day to find a novel written about her life by an anonymous author. Every detail of her life unfolds from her sexual experiences to her professional ambitions. In the course of one day, Jane Cook attempts to ascertain exactly who knows all the details and particulars of her life.

While initially it is difficult to transition from the present to the past of Jane's anonymous novel, this story-within-a-story plot proves to be a brilliant premise that celebrates women in every sense of the word. As the novel unfolds, it is easy to become wrapped in the color and depth of its pages. Each assumption Jane makes as to who wrote the manuscript of her life leads us closer to the true culprit.

Cusset deals with a number of contemporary women's issues from the search for a true love to that of a prosperous career in the male-driven profession of college academia. While there is the mystery of who wrote the novel about Jane's life, Cusset's work seems to be more than that. Cusset's novel is a piece of artwork with its rich colors and dynamic depth. Her novel leads us down a highway to paint a universal portrait of what life is like for a young, contemporary American woman.

Heads-Up

Nobel Prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz's wonderful trilogy ("Palace Walk," "Palace of Desire" and "Sugar Street," written in Arabic but translated into English) about middle-class life in Egypt from 1917-1952 has been published in Knopf's Everyman Library ($30). For a picture of Muslim life through several generations, these books are superb. We don't need proof that literature is powerful, but Mahfouz has provided another example: A Muslim fundamentalist, outraged by Mahfouz's views, attacked him outside his home leaving him partially paralyzed.

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