Stuck on the beanstalk
By Judy Raymond
Magic Seeds, by V.S. Naipaul
(Picador, ISBN 0-330-48520-2, 304 pp)
V.S. Naipaul’s writing, both fiction and non-fiction, is peopled with the casualties of history, and so it is with his latest novel. In Magic Seeds, Naipaul takes up again the story of Willie Chandran, the improbable hero of Half a Life. At the end of the earlier book, Willie seemed to have run out of steam; having exhausted the possibilities of life in Africa, he abandons his marriage and is set to drift back to Europe, for want of anything better to do.
At the start of Magic Seeds, however, he seems to have found an unlikely new purpose: under the influence of his turbulent sister Sarojini, a true believer, he joins a guerrilla movement and heads back to India to take part in the liberation struggle. But, being Willie, he cannot rise to revolutionary zeal, only a sense of duty; and it comes as little surprise that Willie’s Indian adventure ends in failure. At last he finds himself in London, once again among the people he knew there thirty years before, a fact that underlines the cyclical course of Willie’s life, his lack of progress.
External events, the aims and ideology of the guerrilla movement, the social and political facts of the times, are left vague in many respects: Willie focuses myopically, intensely, on what is immediately before him. In any case, Naipaul suggests that the larger ends of the movement are irrelevant; what matters is its effect on individuals. Thus the disillusioned Willie writes to his sister from prison, about the people the revolutionaries imagined they were saving: “Our ideas and words were more important than their lives and ambitions for themselves . . . You can’t take a gun and kill that unhappiness. All you can do is to kill people.”
Then, too, the real story of Magic Seeds is the story of Willie himself; his quest for identity takes him once more to another continent and back again, but it is the internal journey of self-discovery and final self-assertion that matters. Much of what is important in the book takes place inside Willie’s head, or in the letters to his sister that he begins to compose but rarely sends. Like the tiny, mentally stunted “cricket people” he encounters in India, Willie is also a victim of what Naipaul calls the cruelty of history, which cannot be avenged. His uprootedness, his lack of a sense of belonging, leave Willie feeling, “I am like a man serving an endless prison sentence.”
And yet Willie is not completely without hope, for he is vulnerable to a belief in impossible dreams, the magic seeds that make someone abandon reason and set off on a journey into fantasy. He comes to believe that his mistake has been to indulge in his odd, pessimistic form of idealism. “That’s where the mischief starts. That’s where everything starts unravelling,” he concludes.
Willie, in his distant way, is a likeable enough and faintly comic character, but this is not always an attractive book. Towards the end, Naipaul falls into a long digression, a soliloquy by Willie’s English friend and host, Roger, who in his own way has made a failure of his life. Roger’s voice here reads suddenly like that of an older man, and indeed sounds suspiciously like that of Naipaul himself in full old-buffer mode, holding forth disdainfully about the disappearance of “the servant class” into council estates, “parasitic slave growths on the main body. They feed off general taxes. They give nothing back. They have, on the contrary, become centres of crime.”
Willie’s flaws are obvious, but he is far more appealing than his self-deceiving fellow revolutionaries, or the self-centred and venal characters he encounters in England. But Willie too can be annoying: does he have to be quite so vulnerable to inertia, or to the force of other people’s wills? He has an affair with Roger’s wife, Perdita, not so much because he wants to, it seems, as because he can. And must he be so miserable? On a weekend visit to a crony of Roger’s, Willie realises that this is where, out of insecurity, Perdita has borrowed her ideas about interior décor. He manages to find in this trivial discovery sufficient reason for existential gloom: “Willie felt an immense surge of sympathy for her, and (surrendering to things within him) he felt oppressed at the same time by the intimation that came to him just then of the darkness in which everybody walked.”
At times, the book seems to reveal more about Naipaul than about the human condition in general: Willie’s search for meaning, his alienation, his pessimism, his travels, recall the experiences and the temperament of his creator.
Despite its melancholy and the spareness of the writing, its detachment from the great events it touches on, the apparent grimness of its conclusion, Magic Seeds is a haunting book. Willie, in his understated way, is engaged in an epic struggle to come to terms with life. He grapples with his own quiet desperation; and perhaps, surprisingly, he wins. In his naïve, prosaic way, Willie sums up his achievement over the course of the years covered by Magic Seeds:
The world is now being shaken by forces much bigger than I could have imagined. Ten years ago in Berlin my sister Sarojini made me almost ill with stories of poverty and injustice at home. She sent me to join the guerrillas. Now I don’t have to join anybody. Now I can only celebrate what I am, or what I have become.
In the end, then, Naipaul strikes a note of muted hope; and Willie muddles through.
The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2004
Judy Raymond is the editor of the Trinidad Guardian. She has written extensively about the arts and current affairs for Trinidadian newspapers and journals, and at present she writes a weekly parliamentary column. She was a regional judge for the 2002 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.