Mr. Biswasn't

Free Willie: V.S. Naipaul's latest—and last?—novel picks up where Half a Life left off

"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." Those thoughts, pondered by the protagonist of Magic Seedsafter his failure at revolution, could well be V.S. Naipaul's own. One wonders if the Nobel Prize–winning author, who recently announced that his latest novel is likely to be his last, is reconsidering his own acerbic commentaries on civilizations and peoples, as espoused in such books as An Area of Darkness (1977) and India: A Wounded Civilization (1964).

Naipaul's purported swan song sees the return of the insipid, fatalistic Willie Chandran, from 2001's Half a Life. That book followed the ennui-fueled arc of Willie's (demi-) existence: his lusterless adolescence in India, three vapid years as a student in London, 18 aimless years in Portuguese Africa, and his feckless desertion of his wife in the midst of a rebellious uprising. Magic Seeds launches from where Half a Life peters out—Berlin, home to Willie's sister, Sarojini. A caustic left-wing filmmaker and supporter of insurrectionary movements, Sarojini urges her 41-year-old lost-soul brother to find his cause, convincing him to join a revolutionary group in India. (Her method is devious: She likens his listless London years to Mahatma Gandhi's, giving him his autobiography, which proves a climacteric, infusing Willie with a newfound, though ephemeral, sense of self-esteem and purpose.) Willie agrees, and fearfully makes his way back to the land he fled over two decades ago, only to find himself in a ragtag army of bitter middle-class recruits rather than the movement of the underclasses he thought he'd signed up for.

Willie's life proceeds as languorously as before: seven years as a cog in a floundering cause, desultorily making his way through the ranks; abandoning ship and offering himself up for surrender, expecting amnesty, only to find himself sentenced to 10 years imprisonment; his pardon by means of a laughably improbable device (the idea that an accessory to the murder of three policemen would be freed from an Indian jail because he is "a pioneer of modern Indian writing" is absurd at best); his return to London, where he moves in with his old acquaintance Roger, who had contrived his release. Willie's life in London seems as vacant as the one before, and the one before that. He joins an architectural magazine. He has afternoon sex with Roger's wife, Perdita, making love to her "in the Balinese way." He becomes Roger's sounding board, lending an ear to his personal and business woes, as well as to his long-winded conservative diatribe on Britain's social decline and decrepitude. He plods on, as does the rest of the novel.

A "pioneer of modern Indian writing" gets released: V.S. Naipaul
photo: Frederic Reglain
A "pioneer of modern Indian writing" gets released: V.S. Naipaul

In a recent interview, Naipaul said, "In all my writing, I've been trying to look for ways to organize in a unity the lives I've lived. In this book, the life I lived in England comes to the fore." Magic Seeds is certainly peppered with well-aired Naipaulian peeves and fixations: the Hindu caste system, Britain's class mentalities, the Muslim issue. There may even be a hint of his best-known book, 1961's A House for Mr. Biswas, as when Willie laments, "I have never slept in a room of my own. . . . I lived in somebody else's house always, and slept in somebody else's bed." And perhaps even glimpses of the writer himself: When Willie discovers the radical movement is not the one he imagined, and thinks, "I have fallen among the wrong people. I have come to the wrong revolution," Naipaul could well be expressing regret for his own infamous dalliance with right-wing Hindu nationalist organizations.

That Naipaul has been, for most of his career, a remarkably astute—if not always accurate—witness to the world with an extraordinary contribution to literature is irrefutable. But Magic Seeds is a life away from his real worth as a writer. The book is mostly prosaic, needlessly repetitive; if nothing else, perfectly symbiotic with Willie Chandran's own flaccid character. Like Willie it stutters and drifts, lacking cogency and depth of spirit. Naipaul himself seems drained of all desire to engage the reader, or too jaded to try. Addressing an audience in New Delhi recently, the laureate said, "I really have no faith in the survival of the novel." Magic Seedsbears that notion out.

 
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