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Not much magic

This is reportedly Naipaul's last book and it is sad that a major literary figure is exiting with such a weak book, writes ALOK RAI.


SOME years back, V.S. Naipaul declared that the novel was a spent form, and that he would have no more to do with it. Now, at the Delhi launch of Magic Seeds, he is reported to have said that this would probably be the last book from him — and so, naturally, the last novel. It is easy to be glib and sarcastic about Magic Seeds, mere confirmation of his thesis about the novel genre, a needlessly broken promise, etc.

The truth is that there is something sad about the fact that someone who is, beyond doubt, a major literary figure of our times — someone whose honesty and courage has been enabling and formative for so many — should be exiting with such a weak book. It is also the case that even the failures of someone as engaged — if not always engaging — as Naipaul are worth attending do.

Superficial flaws

Naipaul has spoken about age, and about flagging energies — and no doubt that has to do with many of the superficial flaws in the book. Thus, the revolutionaries in what can only be some place like Andhra Pradesh are described as "staining their skins with walnut juice" in order to avoid detection by the police. However, the large-scale import of unripe walnuts from distant Kashmir is far more likely to attract the attention of the police! There is a bizarre episode in which the revolutionary leader Ramachandra is shown to arrange a "dinner" for his professor in the house of a local worthy — unknown to both the revolutionary and the professor — so as to avoid the embarrassment of inviting the professor to his own humble lodgings. Much embarrassment all round — but the greatest embarrassment is on the part of Naipaul's readers. One last example of this kind of "nodding" must suffice before we get to what I think of as the serious and significant failure of Magic Seeds.

One day, when Naipaul's protagonist Willie and the revolutionary Ramachandra are resting in the forest, a villager and his wife pass by that way. Responding to his greeting, Willie calls back, "Are you going far?" Naipaul continues: "The man said they were going on a visit to some relations many miles away. Then with a smile he said, `If I had a camera I would give you a good memory of this moment. `Lost in the woods'." Then, no doubt, he goes and commits suicide — after admiring a few more kitschy prints, which Naipaul probably remembers from the mission school he attended back then, before Blighty happened to him.

Spiritual crisis

However, there is a more interesting failure that Magic Seeds helps to identify. The novel opens with Naipaul's protagonist — inexplicably called Willie — staying in Berlin with his sister Sarojini. The sister induces a kind of spiritual crisis in Willie by bringing him up against the condition of what may be called post-colonial passivity in which he appears to be content to live: leading a low-profile sort of existence on the margins of fat, Western societies. Partaking greedily of their civilisational accumulations, he is worlds removed both mentally and physically from the messy historical conditions of the countries from which he comes — originally, India, and then some place that is, significantly enough, generally identified as "Africa".

Sarojini persuades him that it is only a fantasy that he can escape his past, and become "like the people in the ads", leading simple, satisfied Western lives. She tells him that he must overcome his passivity, and recover historical agency, occupy a space in the world, do something. Willie "decides" — if that is quite the word — to return to India, and work with some revolutionary group recommended by his sister.

There are obvious Naipaul echoes here. Not merely is there the familiar trope of the "wounded civilisation", there is also the elegiac evocation of the destruction of Vijayanagara. Then, somewhat more alarmingly, there is the hunger for a voluntarist transcendence of the limitations of history, the fantasy of escaping from the inextricable complications and complexities of the past into some pure state of agency. Willie is drawn to the figure of a shadowy leader called Kandapalli who espouses something called the Mass Line, through which the long-denied but still miraculously available energies of the people can be released for the task of national reconstruction, freed from the hesitation and caution of people who are identified as "middle-class masqueraders".

In the particular context of the novel, this hunger for transcendence takes the form of a certain mysticism of violence, a sort of purgation through deeds of the forced passivity of the enslaved centuries, healing oneself through hurting the hated other. (This is familiar stuff, and may be found both in Fanon and in the practice of revolutionary groups worldwide.)

Failed revolution

But is it far-fetched to see here something also of the extenuating background of Naipaul's own absurd flirtation with the BJP which, for all the reality of its Brahman-bania practice and policy, also espouses a rhetoric of voluntarist transcendence of a messy, muddled and, unfortunately, persistent history? Or perhaps fortunately — for how else could the imagined hurt of Mahmud's sacking of Somnath be assuaged except by the implied continuity between the central Asian plunderer and the poor tailor in Ahmedabad who can, mercifully, be murdered?

Willie's revolution is an abysmal failure. Kandapalli is terminally ill, he falls in with a quasi-criminal gang, and is jailed for 10 years. Then — and this is perhaps the only "magical" moment in the novel — Willie returns, this time to London. There he walks the multi-cultural streets, and savours innocently the solidity of the accumulated wealth of the centuries of colonialism and imperialism and capitalist exploitation. He falls in, or takes up with, a group of old English — and white — friends and associates who, making money and making love, stockbroking and fornicating, are much beset with what, in another discourse, is called "the unbearable lightness of being".

But not Willie, now recovering from his failed attempt to achieve historical consequence — for him, lightness is all, is cool. "Now I don't have to join anybody. Now I can only celebrate what I am, or what I have become."

Of course, Willie sees no connection between the messy world he has left behind and the Western world in which he is now content to belong on the same terms that were decreed unacceptable at the beginning of the novel. I suspect that, finally, Naipaul doesn't, either.

Magic Seeds; V.S. Naipaul, Picador, Rs. 495.

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