Book Reviews

Review Published in NATIONAL REVIEW

The Literary Burden

Navtej Sarna

Magic Seeds; V.S.Naipaul; Picador 2004; Rs 495; Pps.294

Nowadays it is somewhat of a burden to pick up a book by V.S.Naipaul, a burden not alleviated in the slightest by the blurb on the back cover that describes him as “the greatest living writer of English prose.” So daunting is the reputation that he enjoys and so formidable his achievement that one can only expect the very best from the man and it is only a sign of one’s own lack of appreciation, one’s own intellectual vacuity, if the book somehow does not measure up to the standards that Naipaul has set against his name. In the case of Magic Seeds, the latest Naipaul novel, this feeling of inadequacy on the part of the reader becomes appreciable right from the beginning of the book, when Sarojini, living comfortably in Berlin with her German filmmaker husband exhorts her brother, the comatose Willie to find a cause in his life, to leave the world of people who “lived for pleasure alone….ate and watched television and counted their money…” The reader begins to search within himself for the reason why a sister, living the comfortable life herself and espousing revolution only vicariously would urge her brother to roam in Indian jungles and fight a sterile and directionless losing battle. But then if Naipaul says this is so, then it must be so. And it won’t be for some mundane reason of visa or money or health insurance, as the ordinary reader would surmise; it must be some deep desire on the path of the sister to push Willie towards his real identity, in the search of which we all are constantly traversing the world, especially if we are somehow connected to Africa, India and London. And before the innocent reader jumps to any puerile conclusions, all this is not the result of any confusion; it is the destiny of the immigrant, and his descendants.

Chastened by the superficial nature of his own understanding, the reader follows Willie to the jungles of India where numerous guerilla types appear, leading him from one hideout to another, against the classical Naipaul setting of a colonial past. The place, according to Naipaul’s guerilla guide is twenty times sadder than Africa because “in Africa the colonial past would have been there for you to see. Here you can’t begin to understand the past, and when you get to know it you wish you didn’t.” The reader struggles with that one for a while, then lets it pass. The revolution, and this even the obtuse reader would have guessed, does not turn out to be real revolution at all. There are the wrong kind of people in it, including one called Einstein (surprisingly nobody is called Lenin or Stalin, as in most other decent quality imitation revolutions). These are people, surprise again, who kill and Willie too witlessly kills a man, and naturally ends up in jail. Little more than a caricature of the disillusioned Naxalite with a bandana on his head and a copy of Das Kapital in his bag, Willie perceptively concludes: “That war was not yours or mine and it had nothing to do with the village people we said we were fighting for. We talked about their oppression but we were exploiting them all the time. Our ideas and words were more important than their lives and their ambitions for themselves.” The reader perks up, a vague smile of understanding playing around his lips. This makes sense; there were several movies and books about this sort of thing in the seventies. But then he wonders, possessed again by self-doubt: why does it take a Naipaul to tell you this?

Then Naipaul mercifully takes the reader to another favourite locale: London, of the here and now and of thirty years ago. This jump of location in the narrative is not made because Naipaul seems to have run out of the story in India, as the naïve reader was about to conclude, but because there are other aspects of identity to be explored and they can be done through the simple device of obtaining an amnesty for Willie with the help of an English journalist who has also been instrumental in publishing Willie’s first book of short stories decades ago. All of a sudden this book is recognized as a shining beacon of post-colonial Indian writing in English and the reader kicks himself for not being perceptive enough to have realized that he was dealing with a real writer in Willie. Perhaps that would have explained Willie’s movements, not so much in search of a cause as in search of material. This somewhat sudden revelation of Willie’s talents helps Naipaul park Willie safely in a job with an architecture magazine, thus hopefully preventing further plots in which Willie will wander the world, hapless readers in tow.

The rest of the book is devoted to the description of two sexual liasions, one between Willie and Roger’s fading wife Perdita and the other, told in recollection, between Roger and Marian, a swimmer working at municipal baths with artistic leanings and a straightforward, working class attitude towards sex. The latter makes interesting reading, and perhaps Naipaul would not take it amiss if one said that the treatment is reminiscent of Greene in its understatement. There are perceptive observations, dry humour, a certain sordid sadness that all make for good reading. This episode in itself would have made an excellent short story or even a novella; the tragedy is that it hardly links up with the rest of the novel and seems to have been placed there only to somehow round off the book. When one puts down Magic Seeds, the residual feeling is that it is probably a great book, since it is written by an acknowledged master but for some reason, readers like you and me simply don’t get it.