In his last two books, V S Naipaul has returned to fiction after forays into travel writing, reportage and autobiography. However, it's a strange kind of fiction, sifted through a lifetime of engagement with - and abandonment of - various literary forms. From early novels like A House for Mr Biswas (1959), in which Naipaul joyously recreated the Trinidad of his childhood, his vision darkened and deepened. The theme of cultural displacement became central, and he gradually evolved into one of the great cultural pessimists of our age, witty, loftily disdainful and, when occasion demanded, icily mocking. He once said: "I think literature should be read privately. It is not for the young. It is for the old and the damaged who require balm of a certain sort. Tribal societies don't need literature. They have their yams."
In Magic Seeds, which is the sequel to a novel published in 2001 called Half a Life, a middle-aged man called Willy Chandran is the dominant voice. He is a nomadic soul who drifts from India to England, to Africa, to India, and then back to England again, in pursuit of his own identity; a man who feels himself to be forever trapped within a "half and half world", neither one thing nor the other. He suffers from spasms of political idealism; he joins a guerilla group which is fighting for the "liberation" of the people in a Portuguese colony in Africa. Nothing finally satisfies.
The story is told with a ruthless economy of means, sparely, and with an almost brutal simplicity. In fact, it is told almost clumsily at times. Nothing is embellished; there are no descriptive flourishes of any kind whatsoever, nothing to feed the appetite of lovers of Victorian fiction. Buildings, rooms, people are sketched in with just a few quick strokes of the pen. And that seems sufficient because it is the eye-view of Willy Chandran that counts, and his vision of the world is stark and spare and even mean-spirited.
Although the novel has a full panoply of characters, it is utterly dominated by the semi-internal ruminations of Willy, a man forever in restless pursuit of his own elusive essence.
Is this a new way of writing fiction? For Naipaul, it feels so. Other readers of fiction may beg to differ. It reminds us of the fictional musings of Camus and Sartre, that existential pursuit of the ever unknowable - and unreachable - essence. Nothing counts but that. The reality is nothing other than the reality of the self emerging into faithless confusion and dubiety.
At the very moment when Naipaul was starting out as a relatively conventional writer of fiction in England, just across the water the French existentialists were just about finishing doing what Naipaul would strive to do half a century later. Such is the cyclical nature of literature.
It is difficult to love this novel because, finally, it feels parsimonious, haughty and out of love with this fallen world of teeming humanity. A kind of grudging admiration is perhaps the best that Naipaul can hope for from its readers - and that is probably what this winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature (in 2001) would prefer.
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