Magic Seeds by VS Naipaul

Such a long (and boring) journey
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The Independent Culture


"It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That's where the mischief starts". So thinks Willie Chandran on the closing page of Magic Seeds. The journey towards this truism began in the novel's predecessor, Half a Life, which dealt with Willie's childhood, his time in London in the 1950s, his unsatisfactory marriage to Ana and their 18 years in Portuguese East Africa. Some simple lessons are hard to learn, and Willie learns his just before he reaches 50.

Willie is indecisive and self-aware to the extent that he recognises his inadequacies in every aspect of human endeavour. A person of such a negative disposition might be accounted a bore, and Willie is. VS Naipaul invests him with very few likeable, or interesting, features. He seems set up to be put through nihilistic hoops. He has no freedom from his creator, no life of his own. He is Naipaul's prisoner.

Magic Seeds opens in West Berlin, before the Wall was razed. Willie is staying with his sister Sarojini, whose German lover Wolf is a photographer. Sarojini is a left-wing revolutionary and chides her brother for his lack of commitment. Ever the masochist, Willie listens as she pontificates. She speaks in editorials, and at her most hectoring sounds like John Pilger in drag. Sarojini tells Willie about Kandapalli, the inspiring force behind a revolution in an unnamed region of India.

Sarojini and Wolf arrange for Willie to become a guerrilla, and the major part of the story is concerned with Willie's lacklustre career in the revolutionary movement. One grisly year follows another: he is forced to kill a man, is privy to the murder of three policemen, and is duly sent to jail. He is released by a contrivance that would invite ridicule if perpetrated by a lesser talent than Naipaul. At this point, the reader is informed that the volume of stories Willie published in London has been hailed as a landmark of post-colonial literature. This comes as a surprise, given his lack of curiosity. It's thanks to his fame as a writer that he is allowed to leave India, the case against him brushed aside.

The final chapters have Willie living in a house in St John's Wood owned by Roger, a seedy lawyer of exceptional repulsiveness. His overweight wife Perdita satisfies Willie's rekindled sexual desires. Willie impresses a wealthy banker, Peter, to whom Roger is in thrall, and is given a job on an architectural magazine.

Roger indulges in several details too many about his relationship with Marian, who lives on a council estate. The term "council estate woman" is new to me, and I commend it to Michael Collins, author of The Likes of Us, a biography of the white working class. Roger's snobbishness and misogyny may be his own, but they seem perilously close to views expressed by Naipaul.

I wish I could record that Magic Seeds is written with Naipaul's customary elegance, but I can't, because it isn't. The prose is repetitive, set down in a faux-naïf manner that soon irritates. If Willie is the principal character in a third novel, I shall not be following his further progress. Enough is truly enough.

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