A Naipaulean landscape

Published : Jan 28, 2005 00:00 IST

Magic Seeds by V.S. Naipaul; Picador; pages 294, Rs.495.

YET again from Sir Vidia, despite his dire prophecies about the death of the novel, comes one. Although Magic Seeds reads in parts more like a travel narrative, while it is neither picaresque nor picturesque it is studded with the sharp little nuggets of observation that make Naipaul's travel writing so compelling despite its sweepingly harsh judgments. In his Nobel lecture in December 2001, Naipaul spoke of his fascination for both genres: "Both fiction and the travel-book form have given me my way of looking... . It came to me, for instance, when I set out to write my third book about India - twenty-six years after the first - that what was most important about a travel book were the people the writer travelled among. The people had to define themselves."

The Trinidad-born Naipaul's literary career began after he went to England in 1950 on a scholarship to study at Oxford. His oeuvre now encompasses twenty-eight books; Magic Seeds is his fourteenth work of fiction. Where does this, his latest work, stand in relation to the earlier novels? In his Nobel lecture, Naipaul said: "I am the sum of my books. I feel that at any stage of my literary career it could have been said that the last book contained all the others." Except that one wonders if a sparer, slighter work like Magic Seeds can contain the exuberance and richness of A House for Mr. Biswas.

Nevertheless, his 2001 Nobel Prize commended Naipaul's ability to combine "perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories". In keeping with this commendation, Magic Seeds moves swiftly and misses little - except, of course, the usual things that Naipaul misses, such as compassion and courage.

Willie Chandran, whose story Magic Seeds sets out to tell, is the one-time writer, drifter, and protagonist of Naipaul's last novel, Half a Life. At the end of this second novel, Willie himself remains only half-defined. The novel begins with Willie still living "in a temporary, half-and-half way" - which, for him, in this Naipaulean landscape, drifting along, being pampered by various women - is just what he is looking for. If, that is, he can be said to be looking for anything at all: for this is the life, he realises, this is "a great refreshment, this new kind of protected life, being almost a tourist, without demands and without anxiety".

Nevertheless, he cannot remain in this comfortable limbo for much longer. Willie is a traveller between two worlds, one of which is "ordered, settled, its wars fought" and in the other people are "more frantic... desperate to enter the simple, ordered world". His visa in the comfortable, ordered world of West Germany is not going to be renewed, and his sister Sarojini, an activist living in Berlin on state subsidy and making films about guerilla camps, scolds him for his passive attitude. "I have to talk to you about history," she tells him briskly, and proceeds to do so in her reductionist, staccato way. Imperialisms work by making warrior peoples servile, she explains; and then she tells him about Kandapalli Seetaramiah's revolution, one that is going to come not from the middle-classes but "from below, the village, from the people".

And so Willie drifts on, slightly amused, slightly exhausted, vaguely worried for his own safety, `ordained' by his Marxist sister for revolutionary work in Kandapalli's forests. India hits him, as Naipaul's distaste hits us, in Frankfurt airport itself: "Detail by detail the India he was observing, in the airport pen, and then in the aircraft, the terrible India of Indian family life - the soft physiques, the way of eating, the ways of speech, the idea of the father, the idea of the mother, the crinkled, much-used plastic shop bags (sometimes with a long irrelevant printed name) - this India began to assault him, began to remind him of things he thought he had forgotten and put aside, things which his idea of his mission had obliterated... he felt something like panic at the thought of the India that was approaching."

Looking around him, Willie shrinks from the airport carpentry, its casually whitewashed walls, its black-bladed ceiling fans, their metal rods "furry with oil and sifted dust"; and the cleaning woman, squatting on her haunches as she cleans the floor, gives "a suggestion of thinly spread grime".

But before we can wonder why he is here at all if he dislikes it so much, Willie moves on. He travels first to the railway station by taxi, then by train to a non-metropolitan town, then from a larger hotel to a small lodge - and finally, unglamorously, enters the revolution. Except that it is the wrong one: the group he joins has broken away from Kandapalli, who is himself declining - and so on it goes, with various revolutionary colleagues appearing and disappearing from the pages, until Willie kills a man one day; and then finally, years later (and how these years pass!) he finds himself in jail.

Once again it is Sarojini, the brisk activist, who finds a way to get Willie out of jail and back to London. Willie's position as a writer, she reminds him, is still something of value, a force in the world. Old acquaintances are recalled and connections made. At London airport, Willie tells himself what he must do now: "I have been there. I have given part of my life and I have nothing to show for it. I cannot go there again. I must let that part of me die. I must lose that vanity. I must understand that big countries grow or shrink according to the play of internal forces that are beyond the control of any one man. I must try now to be only myself. If such a thing is possible."

So much for the revolution, then. The next part of Willie's life is devoted to himself. "My life has been a series of surprises," he declares somewhat grandly to Roger, the lawyer-friend who gives him a place to stay in London - little realising that yet another surprise is just around the corner, in the shape of Roger's wife Perdita, with whom Willie proceeds to have a strangely unexciting sexual romp. He then wanders through the streets of London. Discovering that multiculturalism has happened while he was away, he decides that this is change enough to merit another declaration: "There has been a great churning in the world. This is not the London I lived in thirty years ago... . The world is being shaken by forces much bigger than I could have imagined."

Finally, as if to seal the changes that have taken place in the world, Willie listens to Roger's complaints about the decline of England, the disappearance of "the servant class", and the high taxes that, according to him, destroyed not only families but also "the idea of families". Underlining the strange and sordid nature of these changes, Roger launches into an account of his weekend affair in the country with a woman from a council-estate background. The novel ends with a humorous account of an inter-racial marriage, contemporary and politically correct, with the two children of the happy couple, one dark and one fair, standing next to them as they wed. And even when one of the children farts in the middle of the ceremony, the white guests think it is the white child, while the dark guests think it is the dark child.

Undoubtedly, then, this novel is nothing like A House for Mr. Biswas. And yet Naipaul's prose is always clear, hard-edged and pure. Willie Chandran the failed revolutionary, defeated before he has found his battle, immensely relieved to have put it behind him, may be an uninspiring character, but he is a perceptive one. He leaves us with a set of troubling thoughts on the cities and the worlds we live in, and on race, relationships and revolutions. Magic Seeds is neither easy nor pleasant to read - it is a book one wants to dislike - but it is also, as always with Naipaul, so well crafted, with some glittering passages and many thought-provoking moments, that one is compelled to read it to the end, and admire at least its art, if not its heart.

There is nothing particularly unusual about saying that literary forms do change and are changing. In a 1987 essay, "On Being a Writer", published in The New York Review of Books, Naipaul talked about the need for literary forms to change corresponding with the needs of the prevailing culture. And so, again, this year, he has declared that the novel is dying. But Magic Seeds proves him wrong.

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