A review written nearly 20 years ago – the book was V S Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival and the reviewer Salman Rushdie – ended with the observation that the word ‘love’ could be found nowhere in the text and that this was “very, very sad.”
I am happy to report that that word occurs at least once in Naipaul’s latest novel, Magic Seeds. It comes towards the end of the book. The protagonist, Willie Chandran, is listening to his friend Roger, a lawyer in London, as he describes his feelings for his mistress. Roger says, “Having got to know Marian, I wished to know no other woman in that special way, and I wonder whether that cannot be described as a kind of love: the sexual preference for one person above all others.”
There is little love in this novel, but I didn’t miss it, and not only because there is such distance that divides Naipaul’s characters from each other. The truth is that a greater distance divides Willie from himself – and Naipaul is exact, if not also exacting, in his mapping of the arid landscape of loneliness and dislocation.
Willie Chandran’s early life – his unhappy boyhood in southern India, his travel to England for his education and then his later stay in Africa – had been the subject of Naipaul’s previous novel, Half a Life. The current work takes up the narrative with Willie in his early forties. The story is told in two parts: the first half is set almost entirely in India and is presented as an account of Willie’s travels – and travails – with a murderous Maoist group; the shorter second section follows Willie’s return to London, where he had spent his youth as an insecure, indigent student.
For most readers in Southasia, the first half of the book will be of greatest interest, not least for its critique of the region’s middle-class leftists, who for reasons of vanity and worse, attempt to foment revolution. Willie’s, and Naipaul’s, sympathy is for the poor, not for their protectors. (One of the leftist ideologues that Willie meets soon after his return to India points to his servant girl and says, “She is fifteen or sixteen. No one knows. She doesn’t know. Her village is full of people like her, very small, very thin. Cricket people, matchstick people. Their minds have gone after the centuries of malnourishment. Do you think you can make a revolution with her?”) Scenes like this provide a prelude to the elaboration of the enduring Naipaulian theme of failure, and it must be said that the return to customary bleakness provides one of the lesser joys of reading Magic Seeds.
Half a Life had begun with the line: “Willie Chandran asked his father one day, ‘Why is my middle name Somerset? The boys at school have just found out, and they are mocking me.”‘ The story of the name turned out to be rich with ironies. In a rebellious act that was also an act of cowardice, Willie’s upper-caste father had become a mendicant. This was in a princely kingdom in the India of the 1930s. But in that role, he was visited by the writer Somerset Maugham and became the source for the latter’s book The Razor’s Edge. Willie had been named after the author. When once his father asked Willie what he thought of that, Willie had replied, “I despise you.”
In Naipaul’s work, the names of books and authors, and the record of their use, repeat the story of newness, distortion, and often, loss. This is another of the smaller pleasures of reading him, although I suspect it would make Naipaul more popular among literary-minded readers, readers who like being charmed by the names of Victorian and Edwardian titles.
There is a larger story that Naipaul is telling even in the story of names. This is the saga of miscegenation – of what happens when literatures and cultures and people travel and mix with one another. It is another of Naipaul’s unhappy obsessions and it finds expression in Magic Seeds in various pessimistic and repeatedly alarming forms. One could argue that the first half of the book is a narrative about the consequences of transplanting Marx and Lenin and Mao onto the Indian countryside. It is also proper to Naipaul’s vision that Willie joins the wrong guerrilla group by mistake. The book’s second half deals with the mixing of classes in England and how this process gets played out in bedrooms of convenience. Roger’s painful experience with his working-class mistress is intended as an example of this thesis. But Roger’s tirades are not limited to women – they include immigrants, Arabs, the common people.
The tone throughout, but especially in the latter part, is polemical and recalls some of Naipaul’s own racialist statements in interviews. (We again meet Marcus, a West African diplomat, who “lived for inter-racial sex, and wanted to have a white grandchild.” He succeeds. “His half-English son has given him two grandchildren, one absolutely white, one not so white.” The novel closes with the marriage of the parents of the grandchildren. “It’s the modern fashion. Marriage after the children come.”) I’m tempted to say that the text is in equal parts misanthropic and misogynist, but that would be wrong, because the brutality is sharpened by what can only be described as honesty, not to mention tenderness, vulnerability, and even affection.
I found the book a pleasure to read. By now, one knows what to expect in Naipaul. His themes, sometimes even his motifs, repeat themselves. Depending on one’s taste, this can be either satisfying or exhausting. I read him with the greatest attention because there is no one else who can turn, with such vividness and unsentimental intelligence, mere journalistic observation into novelistic prose.
A thing of beauty
Some years ago, I had heard that Naipaul had been interviewing members of the People’s War Group in Andhra. The writer had told the BBC: “I met some of the middle class people who’d gone out to join the revolution and I wasn’t impressed by them at all. I thought they were vain, I thought they were not a quarter as bright as they thought they were.” This book is a report on the shallowness Naipaul encountered, but it begs the question: What if Willie had not “fallen among the wrong people” and had joined the right revolution, the one for which he had left Berlin and returned to India? Would Naipaul’s portrayal have been more sympathetic? I am inclined to think not.
And yet, before I end, I must note that although the term ‘love’ is a rarity in Magic Seeds, one word that is often to be found is ‘beauty’. Naipaul uses it to describe the turquoise flame of the furnace of a sugar factory where Willie performs hard labour; the scene in a weaver’s colony; fields of mustard and peppers; poor villages; the black-trunked trees in the small garden that Willie sees when he returns to London; bound volumes of old magazines; the names of the streets in the great city, names like Park Lane and Grosvenor Lane; even the ceramic hobs on the cooker in the kitchen.
The list, unremarkable in itself, gives rise to another thought. I wonder whether this cannot be described as a kind of love: observation and passion finding expression in elegant language which thoughtfully gives order to ordinary life.