Magic Seeds

by V.S. Naipaul
ISBN: 0676975550

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A Review of: Magic Seeds
by Steven W. Beattie

Magic Seeds, by the 2001 Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, is a dreadful book. There. I've said it. And while such a brash, admittedly confrontational assertion is likely to result in readers sympathetic to Sir Vidia's oeuvre-to say nothing of the author himself-lining up to have me horsewhipped, or at the very least castigated for what they are sure to see as the basest kind of literary calumny, I can find no more polite or dignified way of expressing myself. The novel, narrated in a haughty, supercilious manner that seems to embrace misanthropy and a wholesale disgust for the people who appear in it, is an exercise in depression: presumably intended, at least in part, as an indictment of the corruption and anomie that leads to violence in revolutionary movements, it comes across instead as a disparaging condemnation of socialists, the poor, political engagement of any kind, and multiculturalism.
A sequel to the author's 2001 novel Half a Life, Magic Seeds begins where the earlier book leaves off. Willie Chandran, now in his forties, has left his wife of eighteen years and come to live with his sister Sarojini in Berlin. Bereft of meaning in his life, Willie is adrift in a world that seems to contain nothing for him: "I don't see what I can do. I don't know where I can go." Willie's existential ennui antagonizes his sister, a documentary filmmaker, who feels that her brother has abdicated his responsibility to involve himself in some cause on the global stage: "If everybody had said that, there would never have been any revolution anywhere. We all have wars to go to."
Heeding his sister's advice, Willie travels to India to join a revolution putatively committed to liberating the lower castes from oppression. But he quickly comes to realize that he has fallen in with the wrong group; a letter from Sarojini tells him that he is "among psychopaths." Sarojini informs Willie that the people he has become a part of "have killed, and are ready to kill again" but "the comfort is that you are all serving the same cause in the end." Murders and violence at the hands of the revolutionaries ensue, always with little or no elucidation of their purpose. The leaders of the group speak of "liberating" the peasants, but the liberation the revolutionaries offer involves little more than the replacement of one set of oppressors with another:

"The squad leader, if he could, might offer a solution to the problems that he had heard about. If he couldn't, he spoke (always in the same simple words and slogans) of the idea and promise of the liberated area; he laid down a few of the new rules, and the people's new loyalties. And then the squad marched on, with a promise to return in some months, to see how people were getting on with their new gift of freedom."

The ironies here are very thick, and the condescension with which the squad leader speaks to the newly "liberated" people-"always in the same simple words and slogans"-is indicative of a revolutionary movement that has lost sight of its cause, if indeed it ever had a cause in the first place. The predominant philosophy of the revolutionaries is "that the peasants have to be disciplined before they can become foot soldiers of the revolution"; a revolutionary, by contrast, must "at all timesbe clear-sighted, andunderstand the poor human material he might have the misfortune to work with." One of the revolutionaries sums it up this way: "If you ask me, I will tell you that the peasants ought to be kept in pens."
The attitude espoused here is one of cynicism and resignation at a world that cannot change, and contempt for any who endeavour to make the world a better place through active engagement with oppressed peoples. Willie himself joins the revolution simply because he has nothing better to do, and when he is confronted about his reasons for associating with the rebels, he is unable to provide a response: "A long story. I suppose it's the story of my life. I suppose it's the way the world is made."
Willie's character throughout the novel is entirely passive; he allows himself to be acted upon by the other characters in the book, while refusing to take any active role in charting his own destiny. Despite his realization that he is "among psychopaths," he remains with the revolutionaries for seven years, eventually turning himself over to the police only because there is another member of the group willing to accompany him. Willie is sentenced to ten years in prison, but his sentence is cut short thanks to the intercession of his sister, who arranges for Willie to be transported to London.
Once in London, Willie takes up residence with Roger, a lawyer, and Perdita, his wife. Willie and Perdita engage in a wayward affair, with Willie insisting that they make love "in the Balinese way" with the man sitting on the woman. Willie's preference for this type of sex arises out of his distaste for what he refers to as Perdita's "used-up body."
The sex in the London section of the novel is presented in language as scathing and debased as that of the revolutionaries in the India sections. Willie's lackadaisical affair with Perdita finds its counterpoint in Roger's affair with Marian, who works in the local baths. The descriptions of their sexual congress would be laughable if they weren't so ugly and depressing:

Midway through the evening she said, "I see you've come with your belt. Do you want to beat me?"
I had some idea what she meant. But it was too far away from me. I said nothing.
She said, "Use the belt. Don't use anything else."
When we had done with that she said, "Is my bottom black and blue?"
It wasn't. Many weeks later that would be true, but not then.
She said, "Did it give you a nice big fat come?"
It hadn't. But I didn't say.

The world of Magic Seeds allows for no sense of connection or fellow-feeling; it is a resolutely cold and pinched world, in which self-interest rules the day and the only proper response to the situation of others is a kind of haughty disdain. This attitude persists through the wedding scene that closes the book: the marriage of Lyndhurst, an African, to a white woman. Lyndhurst's interracial marriage is a "triumph" for his father, Marcus, who "lived for inter-racial sex, and wanted to have a white grandchild." Lyndhurst himself appears to have "Africa more than half scrubbed off him," and his bride "seemed curiously ordinary." The priest who performs the marriage speaks in "a faraway plebeian accent" and "chewed up his words; their fineness seemed to embarrass him." The pice de rsistance to this misanthropic tableau occurs during the reading of a sonnet from Othello, when one of the young pages in the wedding party farts.
In the end, Willie is left to conclude that "[i]t is wrong to have an ideal view of the world," a sentiment that is surely legitimized by the world he is exposed to over the course of the novel. But if Willie ultimately eschews idealism as a motivating philosophy, he remains unable to settle on an acceptable alternative. Towards the end of the book, he seems to embrace defeatism, when he thinks, "I must let the world run according to its bias." Fair enough, but the bias of the world with which we are presented in Magic Seeds seems off-kilter, making no allowance for goodness or generosity or love.
This all might be easier to accept if the writing in the novel were stronger. Naipaul has in the past been praised for the spareness of his prose; critics consistently laud its simplicity and economy and lack of ornament. But what might in the past have been an asset here proves an insurmountable obstacle. Scenes are consistently underdeveloped, characters lecture one another instead of appearing in dramatic interaction, and Willie repeatedly sums up his feelings about a person or a situation in pat little asides to the reader. Nihilistic or misanthropic writing is one thing; what we are given here is lazy writing, and that is something else altogether. A well-crafted depressing novel peopled by hateful characters can still be appreciated for its aesthetic legerdemain. To deny readers even the aesthetic satisfaction of careful writing is unforgivable.

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