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‘Magic Seeds’: A Passage to India

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  • Nov. 28, 2004

MAGIC SEEDS By V. S. Naipaul. 280 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.

Approaching the half-century mark of a distinguished literary career, V. S. Naipaul has entered his “late phase” — as scholars and biographers euphemistically refer to the productions of old age. Now 72, he has written (or published; who knows what went into the circular file?) 14 works of fiction and 14 works of nonfiction: a tidy congruence. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, he is, after a lifetime of heroic labor, home free. What more can we ask of him? T. S. Eliot, after he won the Nobel, glumly described it as “a ticket to one’s own funeral.”

Naipaul would seem to concur. Last month he made the public announcement at a speech in New Delhi that his new novel, “Magic Seeds,” may be his last. “I am really quite old now,” he said, turning his biblical span into premature senescence. “Books require an immense amount of energy. It is not just pages. It is ideas, observations, many narrative lines.” And because V. S. Naipaul will no longer write novels, the genre must die. “I have no faith in the survival of the novel. It is almost over. The world has changed and people do not have the time to give that a book requires.” It is almost over for him.

It’s hard not to sympathize with Naipaul’s self-eulogy. How many novelists — Nobelists or not — have achieved new breath at the end of a long career? Thomas Mann published “The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man” when he was 79; Saul Bellow, astonishingly, produced a masterpiece, his novella “Ravelstein,” when he was 85. But most close up shop well before they’re claimed by what Henry James, on his deathbed, called the Distinguished Thing. (James himself, though he turned out travel books, essays and a notable autobiography in his final decade, published no novel after “The Golden Bowl,” written when he was 61.) They may continue to write and publish, but nothing that adds luster to their reputations.

Naipaul, on the evidence of “Magic Seeds,” is not prepared to go quietly, whatever he says. The sequel to “Half a Life,” published in 2001, it is a subtle if slender production, a novel that revisits the themes — exile, identity, the precariousness of civilization — that he’s been grappling with over the past five decades. The story of Willie Chandran, the son of a Brahmin mystic who escaped his life as a tax accountant and founded an ashram, the two novels are at least in part autobiographical. Willie, like so many of Naipaul’s protagonists, is a writer. As a student, he writes stories and fables in his exercise book that depict, in allegorical form, the shameful history of his family: his father’s reluctant marriage to a low-caste woman; the births of his father’s two unwanted children, Willie and his sister, Sarojini; the torment of lives ruined by the loss of status. To escape, Willie goes off to London. It is a journey that will prove transformative, just as it did in “A Way in the World” and “The Enigma of Arrival,” two earlier works of fiction in which Naipaul obsessively traced his own classic journey from the provinces to the great cosmopolitan world.

Just as often it’s a journey he traces in the reverse direction. Naipaul, even more than most novelists, is driven back again and again to his origins. Only, unlike Philip Roth’s Weequahic, Bellow’s Chicago or William Faulkner’s fictional but real Yoknapatawpha County, the territory he covers is global: India, England, Africa and the Caribbean. (He has also done first-rate reporting on the United States and South America, but those hemispheres are journalistic terrain; they’re not embedded in his psyche.) Nor are these far-flung locales temporary destinations, as they are in the work of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Naipaul has inhabited them all, and in the deepest sense. They are the fundaments of his biography.

At the heart of Naipaul’s experience of the world is a cruel dividedness — prophetic, as it would turn out. His travel writing anticipates our post-9/11 world. “Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief,” he has written. “It makes imperial demands. A convert’s worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands.” There is no place in such a worldview for modernized society. “The convert has to turn away from everything that is his” — or that he would, without knowing it, like to be his.

Born on the island of Trinidad in 1932, Naipaul belonged to a nomadic tribe of indentured servants from India who had migrated there in the 19th century and stayed, taking up uneasy residence among a population whose ethnic difference thwarted assimilation. His father was a journalist who aspired to write — the basis for Naipaul’s sprawling, loose-baggy-monster novel, “A House for Mr. Biswas,” published when he was 29 and, to my mind, his most accomplished book. (“Between Father and Son,” a collection of their correspondence, provides a moving portrait of the failed, timid man whose ghost has haunted Naipaul all his life.) Trinidad was “a dot on the map,” Naipaul once said, “a ridiculous little island” that offered no model for a writer, scarcely even a language. “You ever hear of Trinidad people writing books?” exclaims Ganesh, the first of Naipaul’s many writer heroes, in Naipaul’s debut novel, “The Mystic Masseur.”

In “Half a Life,” Willie makes a precipitous decision to leave England and head off to Africa with his girlfriend, who is from Portuguese East Africa; at the end of the novel, he announces that he’s leaving her after 18 years to begin a new life. (“I have been hiding for too long.”) “Magic Seeds” finds him briefly in Berlin, where he has gone to visit his sister, a jargon-spouting Marxist, and regroup before going off to India to join a revolution that will prove tragically elusive. What revolution doesn’t?

Willie’s Indian interlude has a hallucinatory feel. All he knows upon arrival is what his sister told him about a mysterious ideological fanatic named Kandapalli who has come up with a new refinement on the class struggle — the Mass Line, he calls it: “Revolution was to come from below, from the village, from the people. There was to be no place in this movement for middle-class masqueraders.” Willie, now in his 40’s and at loose ends, is an easy mark, ready to be recruited for a cause — any cause.

The India to which he travels is simply that: India. The city his plane lands in goes unnamed, as does the town in which he meets up with his first contact. The novel is virtually devoid of proper nouns. In the town, he locates Joseph (no last name), an educated revolutionary with a degree from an English university, readily conversant with The New Statesman and the subtleties of socialist politics; Joseph sends him to a kind of commune, where he’s introduced to others who pack him off to a camp in the forest. “That night Willie cried, tears of rage, tears of fear, and in the dawn the cry of the peacock, after it had drunk from its forest pool, filled him with grief for the whole world.”

The next stop on the way to the front lines is a squalid town where he waits to receive orders from the chain of command — Kafka’s K. waiting for word from the Castle. In the countryside, he whiles away more time in pointless indoctrination meetings. The leader, Kandapalli, fails to materialize. Finally something happens: prodded by the commander of his squad, Willie shoots a “rich man” in a rural village, a farmer walking home from his fields at dusk. “Since the feudal people had long ago run away, and there was strictly speaking no class enemy left in these villages, the people to be liquidated were the better off” — the only enemy left. Eventually Willie is captured and put in jail, where he vegetates with other political prisoners, studying the texts of Mao and Lenin. A year or so later — the novel’s chronology is as indistinct as its geography — his sister obtains his release and he returns to London, as with so many of Naipaul’s characters the terminus of the journey.

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Like all insurgencies (to employ a newly fashionable term), this one is fueled by delusions. “We are the new lords,” one of Willie’s comrades confides. Revolution creates hierarchies of its own. The intellectuals, according to Lenin part of the vanguard of the proletariat, imagine they can bring about a classless society by elevating themselves as a class. As we know by now, it never turns out that way. In the end, it remains for Willie “to work out the stages by which he had moved from what he would have considered the real world to all the subsequent areas of unreality: moving as it were from one sealed chamber of the spirit to the next.”

Willie is the latest exemplar of a type familiar to Naipaul’s readers: the fanatical idealist drawn to what he somewhere calls “pseudo-revolutions” or, as he described the abortive 1983 revolt in Grenada that provoked an American invasion, “socialist mimicry.” Cheddi B. Jagan, the orthodox Marxist who rose to become prime minister of Guyana; Michael X, the black power leader who ends up a murderer in Trinidad; the fictional revolutionaries in “Guerrillas,” determined to impose their vision of “the land, the dignity of labor on the land, the revolution based on land,” whatever the human cost: Naipaul is infuriated by their charade, the fraudulent progressive ideology that masks their will to power. Like the self-deluded dreamers in Conrad’s “Secret Agent,” they’re intoxicated with the romance of it all; for them, joining the revolution is an adventure.

What is the significance of these corrupt revolutionaries in Naipaul’s work? Why do they weigh so heavily on his mind? My own surmise is that they represent the reverse of his own response to statelessness. Not that Naipaul is a supplicant, eager to erase all traces of his origins and become a lord dozing in his armchair at the Athenaeum; he has maintained his independence with fierce pride. Rather, he deplores their nihilism; its futility humiliates and enrages him. “Sometimes in a storm beautiful old trees are uprooted,” says Willie’s sister, Sarojini. For Naipaul, the answer to rootlessness is not to mindlessly uproot, but to nurture one’s own identity — to plant.

In “Magic Seeds,” Willie reads Gandhi’s autobiography, “The Story of My Experiments With Truth” (evasively identified as “the mahatma’s autobiography”), and finds it a “healing book.” Gandhi’s example imbues him with “a kind of true pride.” How different this is from the withering essay on Gandhi that Naipaul wrote 40 years ago, when he deplored the mahatma’s vision of a nonviolent revolution as “a fairy tale,” “reducing people to their functions and simplified characteristics” — in other words, totalitarian. Now he cuts his revolutionaries some slack; they’re still deluded and self-absorbed, but their willingness to dedicate themselves to the Movement is less an excuse for conscienceless murder than an act of desperation.

“Magic Seeds” is a lazy book. Gone is even the pretext of narrative art or plausible dialogue. The characters hold forth as if they’re in a Diderot play. (“Another day, in the zoo, in the terrible smell of captive and idle wild animals, she said, ‘I have to talk to you about history.’ “) The sex scenes are ghastly. It’s not that Naipaul can’t — or couldn’t — pull off this most challenging of literary feats. In “Guerrillas,” when Jimmy and Jane make love, their coupling is suffused with the anger and ambivalence that make sex such a harrowing experience. Here it’s just creepy. When Roger, the lawyer responsible for getting Willie out of jail, gives a long-winded account of his affair with Marian, an “artistic potter,” Naipaul dwells in alarming detail on the precise anatomical convolutions — this marvelous phrase I owe to the great biographer Richard Ellmann. Marian invites him to take her from behind, as D. H. Lawrence might have put it (why is anal sex such a literary preoccupation these days?), then to beat her with a belt. Henry Miller he’s not.

Still, there is the occasional flash of exact description, the old Naipaul at work. In the airport of the unnamed Indian city, “the black-bladed ceiling fans were busy; the metal rods or shanks that fixed them to the ceiling were furry with oil and sifted dust.” In his concrete hotel, Willie notes the globalization of hotel marketing clichés: “A room service menu standing upright on the small table promised food around the clock, with dishes ‘from our baker’s basket’ and ‘from the fisherman’s net’ and ‘from the butcher’s block.’ ” And he evokes the predicament of the stateless person with great sympathy; back in London after his Indian misadventure, Willie recognizes “with the deepest kind of ache that there was no true place in the world for him,” and thinks back wistfully to his childhood, “when on some especially unhappy evenings there came, with the utmost clarity, a child’s vision of the earth spinning in darkness, with everyone on it lost.”

Naipaul has written a calculated polemic. The title refers both to the abortive revolution sown by the revolutionaries with whom Willie hooks up in India and, perhaps, to the seed that will produce, through miscegenation, a raceless society. In the last scene, Willie attends the wedding of the half-English son of Marcus, a West African diplomat “who lived for interracial sex, and wanted to have a white grandchild.” The groom, Lyndhurst (“very English,” Roger comments dryly), is marrying a white woman, a union that will result in the culmination of Marcus’s dream. The wedding takes place at a grand house fallen into dereliction in the English countryside. A passage from “Othello” is read, an “Aruba-Curaçao” band plays. Naipaul’s view of Marcus is cynical: just as the mixed-race couple is about to exchange vows, one of the children they’ve had out of wedlock audibly passes gas, no one is certain which: “But the guests lined up correctly on this matter: the dark people thought the dark child” had done it; “the fair people thought it was the fair child.” Not even flatulence can escape the tyranny of political correctness. The mockery grates on the nerves. Naipaul is suggesting that our racial and ethnic fate is sealed; we can never escape who we are, and must learn to live with our unchosen identities whether we like them or not. It’s not a consoling vision; neither is it despairing. It simply is.

If Naipaul is in earnest about his assertion that he’s retiring from the enterprise of fiction — unlikely; what else would he do? — it would be a pity. He may be hustling himself toward the finish line, but he can still guide us, as he does Willie, through “the darkness in which everybody walked.”

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See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries

Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 28/11/2004 Sven Birkerts
Daily Telegraph . 15/9/2004 Anthony Thwaite
Entertainment Weekly B 19/11/2004 Troy Patterson
The Guardian D 25/9/2004 Mike Phillips
The Hindu . 24/10/2004 Alok Rai
The Independent . 17/9/2004 Paul Bailey
Independent on Sunday . 12/9/2004 Michael Glover
The LA Times . 21/11/2004 Richard Eder
London Review of Books . 4//11/2004 Theo Tait
The Nation . 27/12/2004 Michael Wood
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 22/9/2005 Georg Sütterlin
New Statesman . 6/9/2004 Siddhartha Deb
New York . 22/11/2004 Keith Gessen
The NY Rev. of Books . 28/4/2005 John Lanchester
The NY Times D 30/11/2004 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 28/11/2004 James Atlas
The Observer . 18/9/2005 Carl Wilkinson
San Francisco Chronicle . 9/1/2005 Carey Harrison
Scotland on Sunday . 5/9/2004 .
The Spectator . 4/9/2004 Alberto Manguel
Sunday Telegraph . 5/9/2004 Philip Hensher
Sydney Morning Herald . 25/9/2004 Andrew Riemer
TLS . 3/9/2004 Sunil Khilnani
The Village Voice . 2/11/2004 Uday Benegal
The Washington Post . 19/12/2004 Michael Dirda
Die Welt . 18/6/2005 Marko Martin
Die Zeit . 8/9/2005 Martin R. Dean

No consensus, with some impressed but more finding it disturbing and disappointing

    “Naipaul is deliberately obscure throughout about Willie’s external coordinates — the politics, the specifics of locale, even the increments of passing time. As a result, the reader cannot help but focus on the inner picture, the progressive wearing away of all that would orient a man toward meaning.” – Sven Birkerts, Boston Globe

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V.S.Naipaul told the story of Willie Somerset Chandran’s first forty years in Half A Life. Magic Seeds continues Willie’s story, yet this is not a life made whole: it continues, very much, to remain half a life.
Magic Seeds picks up where Half A Life left off, Willie living with his sister in Berlin. The opening suggests a retrospective approach:

It had begun many years before, in Berlin. Another world. He was living there in a temporary, half-and-half way with his sister Sarojini.

But the narrative does not maintain this looking-back approach, instead moving along (if, often, barely ahead) blindly (much like Willie) from this time in Berlin to its conclusion in the present:
Willie notes: “I was always someone on the outside. I still am.” What he does next, after his brief stay in Berlin, — pushed into it by his revolutionary-friendly sister — is certainly a spectacular attempt to do something and would seem to offer certain change, but leaves him more of an outsider than ever: he returns to India to join a guerrilla movement.
Sarojini admires a revolutionary named Kandapalli, and Willie looks to join his movement. Naturally, things go wrong from the start, and he actually winds up a member of a different faction. Almost immediately he realises:

There has been some mistake. I have fallen in among the wrong people. I have come to the wrong revolution.

Willie’s world is one where mistakes are not corrected, but accepted and embraced (perhaps because almost everything that happens to Willie seems to be a mistake): Willie knows he’s with the wrong crowd, but he sticks with them for some seven years.
This isn’t the world’s most impressive insurgency, but it’s as good as typical in its own festering, uncertain, damaged and damaging way. In the area they are active the group has the ability to establish hold over villages and parts of great swaths of territory: there’s simply too much land, too far from any cities or even real towns, for the government to easily control it. The guerrillas have some success, but it is limited, with little hope for grand or revolutionary accomplishment over the long-term. What ideology they fight for is the usual muddled, unclear philosophy of many a revolutionary movement, adapted to the situation they find themselves in:

There was to be a renewed emphasis on the old idea of liquidating the class enemy. Since the feudal people had long ago run away, and there was strictly speaking no class enemy left in these villages, the people to be liquidated were the better off.

There’s no attempt to improve the life of the peasants, merely to force them to serve (or at least put up with) the revolution around them. Success is measured not in actual accomplishment but in the destructive tit-for-tat with the authorities:

Murders of class enemies — which now meant only peasants with a little too much land — were required now, to balance the successes of the police.

It’s an incredibly boring life, too, but the aimlessness of it, and the ignorance in which Willie is kept is, if not exactly fine with him, something he is willing to put up with. Much of the time he is simply a courier, his ability to look “at home everywhere”, to blend in, making him a valuable asset (which he eventually blows by constantly claiming poste restante letters from his sister in Germany . ). The other activists come from all sorts of backgrounds; many are, like Willie, lost souls, unable to find a hold in the real world and willing to be what amounts to game-pieces in this movement.
Naipaul presents the movement as anything but a noble cause, but it’s a convincing depiction of perverted revolutionary idealism and zeal (as happens often if not inevitably with such movements). He captures the insurgency and those affected by it — activists and villagers alike — extraordinarily well. It’s a tough slog, rather than an exciting adventure for Willie, its main features a numbing fear and boredom. Largely following Willie’s experience, Naipaul also offers others’ stories, suggesting circumstances that lead to such fates and the senseless waste caused by this activity. Willie, and many of his comrades, remain outsiders, hardly even feeling safe in the protective but loose and vulnerable network that makes up the movement.
Willie isn’t a take-charge kind of guy, and when he eventually decides to escape it is only because another of the revolutionaries agrees to help him that he is able to go through with it. They surrender themselves to the police, though Willie has thought this through so little that he: “confused the idea of surrender with amnesty”, and is at least mildly disappointed to finding himself sentenced to ten years in jail.
Efficient (if not always effective) meddler Sarojini does manage to help him out of this mess as well; ironically it lands him in permanent exile back in England. Here too he moves in with an old friend, Roger (who has problems of his own), and muddles along, taking what comes his way but barely trying to shape his life.
The real world — and the present — aren’t places where Willie feels too comfortable. Typically, he finds he doesn’t like going about London any more:

It no longer excited him to see the London of his past. To see it too often was to strip it of memories, and in this way to lose precious pieces of himself.

(Given his identity-problem — there’s precious little to that self as is — this attitude is, to say the least, troubling.)
“I don’t have the philosophy to cope”, Willie writes to his sister, but there doesn’t seem to be any philosophy that would fit the bill for him. Willie is displaced, at a remove from reality in all senses — but he’s far from the only one. As Roger (feeling a different sort of anomie) points out, for example:

The common people are as confused and uncertain as everybody else. They are actors, like everybody else. Their accents are changing. They try to be like people in the television soaps, and now they’ve lost touch with what they really might be. And there’s no one to tell them.

Much of the conversation and many of the observations in Magic Seeds are unpleasant, and some may be considered offensive. Many of them match Naipaul’s own pronouncements, and so Magic Seeds can be seen as a platform for Naipaul to convey these opinions, but it looks to be a bit more complicated than that. What Roger spouts about council estates and their residents is particularly unpleasant, but tellingly Naipaul has him acknowledge (in describing meeting a friend of his father’s housekeeper, who turns out not to look “plebeian or council-estate”, as he had expected):

I had worked out a character for her, but, as had been happening more and more in my work in recent years, I had got it wrong.

Roger constantly tries to define and explain the changed world around him — but Naipaul has him admit that he often doesn’t get it right, which makes Roger an unlikely mouthpiece for whatever Naipaul might mean to be taken seriously.
One of Naipaul’s main points is that everyone is at sea. Roger believes that when there was a servant class which knew its place there was at least some clarity and certainty; though he doesn’t quite admit it, it’s clear that its disappearance upsets his own (imagined and neat) world at least as much as theirs.
Roger offers one explanation to Willie — surprisingly, since it clearly applies to Willie as much as the people he is talking about:

They’re confused. They’re not too well educated. That was the smart thing at one time. But now they don’t know who they are and what’s expected of them. The world has changed much too quickly for them.

It’s a lament for a simpler, more orderly past (not that that was what the past was really like . ), and much of Magic Seeds is a somewhat grumpy rant against modernity and what has become of civilization. Willie sees much the same in India, where he fears the “churning of the castes” is a more important question than the religious question, with people not knowing their place and being treated (and thereby also, in some ways, given responsibility) in a way they are not capable of handling — which, he is certain, will lead to catastrophe (just as Roger thinks the vanished servant class is — to disastrous effect — “still in varying ways with us, in cultures and attitudes of dependence”).
If Naipaul’s novel is seen strictly as a vehicle to convey these often preposterous notions and simplistic rationalizations it could easily be dismissed. But there are people who think (and act) like Willie and Roger and the insurgents. Naipaul presents them as anything but heroes, or people who clearly know what is right; instead, they are all damaged souls, uneasy in the contemporary world and unable to fully (and, more significantly, happily) function in it. Naipaul’s diagnosis sounds authentic, even if the justifications and explanations he (or at least his characters) offer are, at best, misguided.
The confused modern world and its more confused inhabitants are artfully presented by Naipaul. It is not a pleasant picture, but it rings horribly true. Naipaul feels that lack of direction and purpose is the root of the problem — though through Roger he goes one step further: “And there’s no one to tell them”, Roger complains, as if all that it took was for someone to put people in their place. But Naipaul also appears to acknowledge that this is an age that can not be directed: Willie, after all, does almost nothing but what he is told, blindly following even those he disagrees with, and it does not serve him (or the world) well at all. (Roger’s love-making with his council-estate mistress, Marian — she commanding him to do what she believes (or has been told) men of his background want (but which he doesn’t), he obeying — shows how far the confusion has spread, that even the most natural act is turned into unpleasant play-acting.)
If Willie is an idealist, he does a poor job of acting on it. He is drawn to better-world initiatives, but — whether it is something as simple as practising yoga or as complex as starting the revolution — is unable to carry them out with much conviction or enthusiasm — or any success. The conclusion he reaches is that: “It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That’s where the mischief starts”, but he fails to note that it is others’ ideal views that have failed him. He has, after all, never managed to embrace one of his own. In fact, at the end of the novel Willie seems to be on the verge of doing exactly the opposite of what Roger maintains is necessary, ready to not listen to others, to not do as he is told and what is expected, turning away from false ideals and expectations. It’s unclear that he’ll ever have the strength or resolve to go through with it, but certainly his only hope lies there.
Presenting, for the most part, an unpleasant world-view, wallowing as few have managed before in anomie, and with characters so flawed that it’s hard to feel any sympathy with them, Magic Seeds may not seem the most appealing of novels, but it is a compelling read. Naipaul’s presentation is unusual too: it’s an isolated world, each man pretty much an island, and much of the material is presented in monologues and letters and, especially, the characters’ thoughts. It keeps the reader at a distance too, and yet keeps a firm hold too: Magic Seeds is an unlikely page-turner, but it definitely is one.
Not a pleasant book, but an exceptional one.

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    publicity page at The Observer at BBC
    (German) (French) (German) (German)
    at books and writers at Contemporary Writers by Naipaul press release in Die Welt (German) to The New York Review of Books (almost all essentially inaccessible)
  • Paul Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
  • See Index of Books by Nobel laureates under review

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Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He attended University College, Oxford. In 2001 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.