"Magic Seeds," V.S. Naipaul's latest and possibly last book, is a quiet and introspective account of one man's drift through a world of revolution and social decay.
The novel follows Willie Chandran - who first appeared in Naipaul's "Half a Life" - as he continues wandering aimlessly through the world and savoring its many and varied disappointments.
In some ways, Willie embodies every character Naipaul has created in his brilliant career. He might also reflect some fragment of the author himself. Born in India and educated at a teacher's college in London, Willie is a postcolonial victim struggling for his own identity in a world that offers cheap freedoms on one hand and mind-numbing oppression on the other.
It sounds grim, and it is. But Naipaul recounts Willie's reflections and his gradual awakening to the world in beautiful, enchanting prose: "The forest was black, and full of sound: sudden wing-beating, amid cries of alarm and pain from birds and other creatures, calling for help that wouldn't come."
Naipaul has never had a particularly cheery view of life in the modern world - developed or developing. In Willie's eyes, every place he encounters has been ruined by idealism, set up according to some utopia of the mind but fated to fail when confronted by the realities of human nature.
"The railway workers' colony was an old settlement, from the 1940s perhaps, of flat-roofed two-roomed and three-roomed concrete houses set down tightly together in dirt roads without sanitation," Naipaul writes of an anonymous Indian town. "It might have been presented at the time as a work of social conscience, a way of doing low-cost housing, and it might just about have looked passable in the idealising fine line (and fine lettering) of the architect's elevation. Thirty-five years on, the thing created was awful."
And half a world away, on the outskirts of London, "an unending level red line of two-storey houses, brick and rendered concrete.... "Nothing like a town, no park or gardens, no building apart from houses and shops."
"Magic Seeds" opens in Berlin, where Willie has landed after fleeing an uprising in the African country he inhabited for 18 years. Having left his wife in Africa, he is staying with his sister, Sarojini. She lives in Berlin with her husband, a producer of left-wing political documentaries.
Months of hectoring by Sarojini finally convinces Willie that he should return to India and join some guerillas dedicated to liberating the lower castes. The result: more years of aimlessness punctuated by a single moment of sad, fruitless violence.
Naipaul presents even this tragic moment with a calm detachment suited to a character unable or unwilling to consider himself part of the world around him.
Willie turns himself in to the authorities, sloughing off his guerrilla existence just as effortlessly as he had his African colonial life before that. He spends a few years in prison, then wins early release thanks to the efforts of his sister.
Exiled to England, Willie finds himself again in a situation of someone else's making. This time it is his friend, Roger, an old college classmate, who shapes the mold for which Willie is to settle.
Within weeks, he is cuckolding his host in the man's own home. The job Willie lands - the first employment he has ever held - is little more than a sinecure.
England, a land that awed and intimidated Willie in his youth, turns out to be a decadent and dissolute society completely divorced from its historic greatness, worth no more than a handful of magic seeds sold to a gullible rube in a fairy tale.
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