It is a delight, after the spilt "fury" of Salman Rushdie's latest assemblage, to savour the furious control of V S Naipaul's new novel. Here, anger is measured in sips, and compassion, of which there is more than might be expected in one of Naipaul's late works, is subtly rationed. Half a Life confirms Naipaul's stature as the greatest living analyst of the colonial and post-colonial dilemma; and those who have never approved of that analysis, and have objected over the years to what they see as Naipaul's fatalism, snobbery or even racism, may find in this book the surprise of a submerged radicalism, a willingness to see things from the eyes of the disadvantaged. At times, the lion does indeed consent to lie down with the underdog.
In the simplest possible prose, in sentences dried down to pure duty, this novel unfolds its compelling story. One day, young Willie Chandran asks his father about his curious middle name. In the course of providing an explanation, the father tells Willie his life story. The son of a successful clerk and proud Brahmin, Willie's father deliberately ruined his chances of betterment by deciding, in the spirit of Gandhi (it was the 1930s), that he should abandon his college degree and submit to a political sacrifice. The sacrifice involved choosing a wife from a low caste, a "backward". Willie's father had no love for this woman, was indeed repelled by her "backwardness". But he married her anyway. When their son, Willie, was born, his father anxiously scrutinised him to see "how much of the backward could be read in his features . . . Anyone seeing me bend over the infant would have thought I was looking at the little creature with pride." So Willie, in turn, grows up despising his cruel and cold father, and is eager to leave India. It is 1957. Willie enrolls at a college of education in London, and begins a new life there as a "colonial".
The novel is 50 pages old at this point. The story of this "sacrifice", both cruel and masochistic, is tremendously compulsive; it has the compulsion of illogical logic. Like Stavrogin's similarly masochistic marriage to a low-born woman in Dostoevsky's The Possessed, it is a gesture that has the veneer of principle but is in fact pathological; and like Stavrogin's act, it is so abnormal that we read on simply in order to find a solving normality. There is none, as Willie suspects - it is why he so hates his father. Its logic is simply that, having been embarked on, it must be continued to the end - a logic curiously analogous to the reading experience (which explains the deep compulsion of Dostoevsky and, in this case, of Naipaul).
Willie's father makes his sacrifice because of apparently radical, or at least progressive, impulses. But the vileness of his act, its unredeemed quality, lies in the paradox that he is not remotely "progressive" in his treatment of his low-caste wife. He is, if anything, more disdainful of his wife's disadvantage, more obsessed by caste distinctions, than he would have been if he had never married her. It is a paradox that runs like a fault line through the entire novel and provides its special richness of political complexity. Behind the arras of the apparently political, suggests Naipaul, lies the messy corpse of our actual motives; and our actual motives may have nothing at all to do with the political.
The best example of this is found in Willie's somewhat doomed life. As an Indian student in 1950s London, suffering the usual humiliations, he finds that he is less willing to criticise his father. And as he sees how much of late-imperial Britain is actually the invention of the recent past, he also feels that the old rules of India - the caste traditions, and so on - no longer hold him: "he was free to present himself as he wished. He could, as it were, write his own revolution."
Up to a point, Willie remakes himself. He gets on in the immigrant-bohemian society of Notting Hill; he writes radio pieces for the BBC; he has a brief affair with an Englishwoman who works at the perfume counter in Debenhams; he writes a book of stories that is rather condescendingly accepted and published - here Naipaul revisits the primal scene of his own "humiliation" as a young Indian writer from Trinidad trying to "find the centre", a scenario he has repeatedly described, fictively and autobiographically.
But Willie is ultimately unable to escape his father's negative obsession with caste. He has inherited it. And in imperial or colonial societies, where Willie now lives, an obsession with caste must become an obsession with race. In London, for instance, Willie befriends Percy Cato, a Jamaican of "mixed parentage", "more brown than black". Willie likes Percy, but can't help feeling, because of Percy's blackness, that "he stood a rung or two or many rungs above Percy". Race has become caste. He meets Ana, a Portuguese African from Mozambique (she had a Portuguese grandfather), marries her, and goes to live with her on her family estate in Mozambique. There, Willie and his wife's friends are higher up the ladder than the Africans, but they are not pure Portuguese, either. Slowly Willie realises "that the world I had entered was only a half-and-half world, that many of the people who were our friends considered themselves, deep down, people of the second rank".
So the son of a Brahmin father and a "backward" mother has made it all the way up - to "the second rank". In the last third of the novel, with terse economy and unsparing acuteness, Naipaul uncovers this second-rank world, a world of braggarts, reactionaries and fakers, people who are very big in a wilderness, but who would be very small in an oasis, and who secretly know it. Nothing is finer than the portrait of the local "big shots", Jacinto and Carla Correia. Jacinto, of mixed Portuguese-African descent, has money, and has had his children educated in Lisbon - where he anxiously tells them "always to use taxis. People must never think of them as colonial nobodies."
As if it were not clear enough to Willie that this world is built on false foundations, one day, visiting a restaurant with his friends, he sees the pure-Portuguese owner abusing a black worker, "a big light-eyed mulatto man". Willie says nothing, but tells us that whenever he remembered "the big sweating man with the abused light eyes, carrying the shame of his birth on his face like a brand", he would think: "Who will rescue that man? Who will avenge him?"
Willie spends 18 years in Mozambique, and the novel ends at the moment of his decision to leave. He is in his forties. Thus the novel has covered, literally, "half a life". But Naipaul means his title more darkly, too. Willie has lived only half a life because, of mixed parentage himself, he is only "half-and-half". And Willie chose to spend most of his life in colonial Mozambique, a "half-and-half" society. More deeply, Willie is half a man because his father's baleful shadow has cut across his life, scything it in two. Notionally free to make himself anew, Willie finds that, in truth, he is doomed to repeat the sacrificial frigidity of his father's life; notionally free of the artifice of caste and race, he is in fact as imprisoned by it as his father - with the difference that at least his father chose to imprison himself, whereas Willie never asked for his own imprisonment. The repellent "sacrifice" of Willie's father has the peculiar effect of both undermining caste and inscribing it more deeply in the fabric of life. By turning caste into a decision, a choice, its bases are exposed as artificial; but by making it a curse, to be handed on from father to son, it has been fatalised, turned into a pathology.
This is how Naipaul's intelligent novel works, too: on the one hand, it remorselessly exposes caste and race distinctions as nothing more than accidents, choices and fake rules; on the other hand, its relentless attention to those very distinctions makes them seem pathologically immoveable. It is this paradoxical movement, between sympathy and coldness, between a potentially radical awareness of the disease of race and an apparently more conservative determination to insist on the permanence of that disease, that produces the novel's powerful, shifting complexity.
Those who are suspicious of Naipaul's politics will surely trace the book's ambivalence to its author and accuse him of political pessimism, even fatalism; those more disposed to Naipaul will find power in that pessimism, as well as the seeds of a cold compassion: because what Willie thinks about the abused restaurant worker might also be said, in pity, of poor trapped Willie, and even perhaps of Naipaul: "Who will rescue that man? Who will avenge him?"
James Wood is the author of The Broken Estate: essays on literature and belief (Pimlico, £9.99)