MAGIC SEEDS by V.S. Naipaul. Knopf, 2004. Hardcover, 288 pages. $25.00.
Magic Seeds is the second half of Half a Life, V.S. Naipaul’s novel written just before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. Although the two books together do not stitch together an entire life, they do weave a wholly satisfying evolution of a modern worldview—that of Willie Chandran, born in India of a Brahmin father and a low caste mother, spottily educated in England, married and lost in Africa, redirected by his sister, Sarojini, from the relative comfort of Germany to a doomed social revolution in India, and finally rescued from an Indian jail back to London.
Because of Willie’s wide-ranging and seemingly aimless travels, he does not possess a rooted voice. “It’s the one thing I have worked at all my life: not being at home anywhere, but looking at home.” Increasingly he is aware of his place in the world, but it is always as a seeker who has not yet found what it is he is looking for. To be sure, Willie changes and grows. In a stretch of writing that feels almost religious, with Willie, Buddha-like, setting out on the Indian road to see the world anew, Naipaul transports the reader to places never seen, or visited and long-forgotten. He helps Willie, and thus the reader, to see what has always been there—dust, old dust—but has gone unnoticed and unremarked upon. Naipaul makes the unremarkable remarkable: “At every halt there was dust and the smell of old tobacco and old cloth and old sweat … Willie thought in the beginning, ‘I am going to have a shower at the end of this.’ Then he thought that he wouldn’t: that wish for hour-to-hour comfort and cleanliness belonged to another kind of life, another way of experiencing. Better to let the dust and dirt and smells settle on him.”
But in the end, even though Naipaul bestows upon Willie this yogic discipline as well as a Naipaulian certainty about the world, Willie remains both an unreliable and unsympathetic character. This makes the fiction less a pleasure and more a vehicle for understanding Naipaul’s worldview and his way to that view, not unlike reading Orwell for his politics of power and powerlessness or the Mahabharata for its commentaries on virtuous behavior in a just society.
Some liberal critics have always found much to dislike in Naipaul’s politics, finding him to be a defender of imperialism. While they will take similar issue with Magic Seeds, they will again be wrong. Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (he was knighted by the Queen of England in 1990) is not sympathetic to the politics of the oppressor; but neither is this diasporic descendent of indentured servants sympathetic to the politics of the oppressed. Naipaul only claims allegiance to truth, his truth as he sees it.
Although Naipaul does have an expansive worldview, he certainly does not take everything into this expansiveness. There is little, if any, room for love or optimism. Magic Seeds has no sustained belief in the possibility of love and optimism. It is sad, and it is perhaps a reason to not read him. But it is a far better reason than the unfair politics of the left that have demonized Naipaul as some kind of coconut with a pen—all brown and hairy on the outside, but pure white inside. A more accurate metaphor would be an unopened but achingly dry coconut: the exterior shell hardened by, and to, a hard world; the interior unseen and unseeable because the protective brittleness of the shell penetrates to the core.
Naipaul gives small glimpses into this vulnerability in a letter from Willie to Sarojini about his late-in-life desire to be an architect. Upon returning to London after his stint in an Indian jail, Willie writes: “The difficulty there is that to any logical mind it is absurd for a man of fifty to start learning a profession. The main difficulty is that to carry it out I would need an injection of optimism … The only optimism I had was when I was a child and had a child’s view of the world. I thought for two or three years with that child’s view that I wanted to be a missionary. This was only a wish for escape. That was all my optimism amounted to. The day I understood the real world the optimism leaked out of me. I was born at the wrong time.”
Just as optimism leaked out of Willie, somewhere on Naipaul’s life journey, optimism also leaked out of him. But unlike Willie, Naipaul was not born at the wrong time. Over the past three quarters of a century, he has been witness to a changing world. He has used the written word to translate what he has seen and make sense of it all. Born in Trinidad, he left that island as a scholarship boy and observed the final gasps of British imperialism. As Naipaul matter-of-factly, but with a hint of the pride of a self-made man, claims in the publisher’s Note About the Author that accompanies all his books, “After four years at University College, Oxford, he began to write, and since then has followed no other profession.”
In Dublin, not faraway from Naipaul’s adoptive England, there is an exhibit at the Trinity College Library called “Turning Darkness Into Light.” The exhibit takes its title from “Pangur Ban,” a poem written about the writer’s life by a 9th century Irish monk.
’Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
’Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try,
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
While Naipaul has always been full and fierce and sharp and sly, for me he turns light onto darkness, shining his particular brilliance on the world’s darkness. He dourly demands that we see the shadows. As with Magic Seeds, I usually leave his books shaken and troubled, my sunny optimism braced for the challenges of our changing and unchanging world.
Rajesh C. Oza is an organization alignment and change management consultant. He seeks to align that calling with a change back toward a writer’s life.
This article was originally published in 2005.