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A : impressive meditation on contemporary anomie
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
V.S.Naipaul told the story of Willie Somerset Chandran's first forty years in Half A Life.
Magic Seeds continues Willie's story, yet this is not a life made whole: it continues, very much, to remain half a life.
It had begun many years before, in Berlin. Another world. He was living there in a temporary, half-and-half way with his sister Sarojini.But the narrative does not maintain this looking-back approach, instead moving along (if, often, barely ahead) blindly (much like Willie) from this time in Berlin to its conclusion in the present:
Willie notes: "I was always someone on the outside. I still am." What he does next, after his brief stay in Berlin, -- pushed into it by his revolutionary-friendly sister -- is certainly a spectacular attempt to do something and would seem to offer certain change, but leaves him more of an outsider than ever: he returns to India to join a guerrilla movement.
Sarojini admires a revolutionary named Kandapalli, and Willie looks to join his movement. Naturally, things go wrong from the start, and he actually winds up a member of a different faction. Almost immediately he realises:
There has been some mistake. I have fallen in among the wrong people. I have come to the wrong revolution.Willie's world is one where mistakes are not corrected, but accepted and embraced (perhaps because almost everything that happens to Willie seems to be a mistake): Willie knows he's with the wrong crowd, but he sticks with them for some seven years.
This isn't the world's most impressive insurgency, but it's as good as typical in its own festering, uncertain, damaged and damaging way. In the area they are active the group has the ability to establish hold over villages and parts of great swaths of territory: there's simply too much land, too far from any cities or even real towns, for the government to easily control it. The guerrillas have some success, but it is limited, with little hope for grand or revolutionary accomplishment over the long-term. What ideology they fight for is the usual muddled, unclear philosophy of many a revolutionary movement, adapted to the situation they find themselves in:
There was to be a renewed emphasis on the old idea of liquidating the class enemy. Since the feudal people had long ago run away, and there was strictly speaking no class enemy left in these villages, the people to be liquidated were the better off.There's no attempt to improve the life of the peasants, merely to force them to serve (or at least put up with) the revolution around them. Success is measured not in actual accomplishment but in the destructive tit-for-tat with the authorities:
Murders of class enemies -- which now meant only peasants with a little too much land -- were required now, to balance the successes of the police.It's an incredibly boring life, too, but the aimlessness of it, and the ignorance in which Willie is kept is, if not exactly fine with him, something he is willing to put up with. Much of the time he is simply a courier, his ability to look "at home everywhere", to blend in, making him a valuable asset (which he eventually blows by constantly claiming poste restante letters from his sister in Germany ...). The other activists come from all sorts of backgrounds; many are, like Willie, lost souls, unable to find a hold in the real world and willing to be what amounts to game-pieces in this movement.
Naipaul presents the movement as anything but a noble cause, but it's a convincing depiction of perverted revolutionary idealism and zeal (as happens often if not inevitably with such movements). He captures the insurgency and those affected by it -- activists and villagers alike -- extraordinarily well. It's a tough slog, rather than an exciting adventure for Willie, its main features a numbing fear and boredom. Largely following Willie's experience, Naipaul also offers others' stories, suggesting circumstances that lead to such fates and the senseless waste caused by this activity. Willie, and many of his comrades, remain outsiders, hardly even feeling safe in the protective but loose and vulnerable network that makes up the movement.
Willie isn't a take-charge kind of guy, and when he eventually decides to escape it is only because another of the revolutionaries agrees to help him that he is able to go through with it. They surrender themselves to the police, though Willie has thought this through so little that he: "confused the idea of surrender with amnesty", and is at least mildly disappointed to finding himself sentenced to ten years in jail.
Efficient (if not always effective) meddler Sarojini does manage to help him out of this mess as well; ironically it lands him in permanent exile back in England. Here too he moves in with an old friend, Roger (who has problems of his own), and muddles along, taking what comes his way but barely trying to shape his life.
The real world -- and the present -- aren't places where Willie feels too comfortable. Typically, he finds he doesn't like going about London any more:
It no longer excited him to see the London of his past. To see it too often was to strip it of memories, and in this way to lose precious pieces of himself.(Given his identity-problem -- there's precious little to that self as is -- this attitude is, to say the least, troubling.)
"I don't have the philosophy to cope", Willie writes to his sister, but there doesn't seem to be any philosophy that would fit the bill for him. Willie is displaced, at a remove from reality in all senses -- but he's far from the only one. As Roger (feeling a different sort of anomie) points out, for example:
The common people are as confused and uncertain as everybody else. They are actors, like everybody else. Their accents are changing. They try to be like people in the television soaps, and now they've lost touch with what they really might be. And there's no one to tell them.Much of the conversation and many of the observations in Magic Seeds are unpleasant, and some may be considered offensive. Many of them match Naipaul's own pronouncements, and so Magic Seeds can be seen as a platform for Naipaul to convey these opinions, but it looks to be a bit more complicated than that. What Roger spouts about council estates and their residents is particularly unpleasant, but tellingly Naipaul has him acknowledge (in describing meeting a friend of his father's housekeeper, who turns out not to look "plebeian or council-estate", as he had expected):
I had worked out a character for her, but, as had been happening more and more in my work in recent years, I had got it wrong.Roger constantly tries to define and explain the changed world around him -- but Naipaul has him admit that he often doesn't get it right, which makes Roger an unlikely mouthpiece for whatever Naipaul might mean to be taken seriously.
One of Naipaul's main points is that everyone is at sea. Roger believes that when there was a servant class which knew its place there was at least some clarity and certainty; though he doesn't quite admit it, it's clear that its disappearance upsets his own (imagined and neat) world at least as much as theirs.
Roger offers one explanation to Willie -- surprisingly, since it clearly applies to Willie as much as the people he is talking about:
They're confused. They're not too well educated. That was the smart thing at one time. But now they don't know who they are and what's expected of them. The world has changed much too quickly for them.It's a lament for a simpler, more orderly past (not that that was what the past was really like ...), and much of Magic Seeds is a somewhat grumpy rant against modernity and what has become of civilization. Willie sees much the same in India, where he fears the "churning of the castes" is a more important question than the religious question, with people not knowing their place and being treated (and thereby also, in some ways, given responsibility) in a way they are not capable of handling -- which, he is certain, will lead to catastrophe (just as Roger thinks the vanished servant class is -- to disastrous effect -- "still in varying ways with us, in cultures and attitudes of dependence").
If Naipaul's novel is seen strictly as a vehicle to convey these often preposterous notions and simplistic rationalizations it could easily be dismissed. But there are people who think (and act) like Willie and Roger and the insurgents. Naipaul presents them as anything but heroes, or people who clearly know what is right; instead, they are all damaged souls, uneasy in the contemporary world and unable to fully (and, more significantly, happily) function in it. Naipaul's diagnosis sounds authentic, even if the justifications and explanations he (or at least his characters) offer are, at best, misguided.
The confused modern world and its more confused inhabitants are artfully presented by Naipaul. It is not a pleasant picture, but it rings horribly true. Naipaul feels that lack of direction and purpose is the root of the problem -- though through Roger he goes one step further: "And there's no one to tell them", Roger complains, as if all that it took was for someone to put people in their place. But Naipaul also appears to acknowledge that this is an age that can not be directed: Willie, after all, does almost nothing but what he is told, blindly following even those he disagrees with, and it does not serve him (or the world) well at all. (Roger's love-making with his council-estate mistress, Marian -- she commanding him to do what she believes (or has been told) men of his background want (but which he doesn't), he obeying -- shows how far the confusion has spread, that even the most natural act is turned into unpleasant play-acting.)
If Willie is an idealist, he does a poor job of acting on it. He is drawn to better-world initiatives, but -- whether it is something as simple as practising yoga or as complex as starting the revolution -- is unable to carry them out with much conviction or enthusiasm -- or any success. The conclusion he reaches is that: "It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That's where the mischief starts", but he fails to note that it is others' ideal views that have failed him. He has, after all, never managed to embrace one of his own. In fact, at the end of the novel Willie seems to be on the verge of doing exactly the opposite of what Roger maintains is necessary, ready to not listen to others, to not do as he is told and what is expected, turning away from false ideals and expectations. It's unclear that he'll ever have the strength or resolve to go through with it, but certainly his only hope lies there.
Presenting, for the most part, an unpleasant world-view, wallowing as few have managed before in anomie, and with characters so flawed that it's hard to feel any sympathy with them, Magic Seeds may not seem the most appealing of novels, but it is a compelling read. Naipaul's presentation is unusual too: it's an isolated world, each man pretty much an island, and much of the material is presented in monologues and letters and, especially, the characters' thoughts. It keeps the reader at a distance too, and yet keeps a firm hold too: Magic Seeds is an unlikely page-turner, but it definitely is one.
Not a pleasant book, but an exceptional one.
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Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He attended University College, Oxford. In 2001 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
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