Scott McLemee
The Man Without Qualities
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Newsday, 28 November 2004

MAGIC SEEDS, by V.S. Naipaul. Knopf, 280 pp.

For several years before he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001, V.S. Naipaul seemed close to abandoning the novel for some new genre of his own invention. It was partly autobiographical but with strands of historical narrative woven in. It offered a satirical analysis of the travelogues published by European writers who visited the colonies in the era of imperialism, while being even more scathing about celebrations of Third World insurgencies by left-wing "tourists of the revolution."

With The Enigma of Arrival (1987) and A Way in the World (1994), the reader often got the sense that Naipaul was deconstructing his own earlier fiction, memoirs and journalism. At the same time, you couldn't quite take the "I" in the books to be Naipaul himself, whatever the points of resemblance. Over the years, Naipaul had quoted Proust on "the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents that world." He returned to that quotation in his Nobel lecture. While it is a good policy to preserve a little skepticism about an author's statement of what he is doing, this seemed a warrant for regarding Naipaul's late work as a kind of spiritual exercise, a process of relentless psychic disburdenment.

But Half a Life (2001) was recognizable as a novel; and so is Magic Seeds, just published, which shares some of the same characters. Taken together, they revisit most, if not all, of the themes, obsessions and social worlds of his earlier fiction. Willie Chandran (the narrator of most of Half a Life) is an Indian emigre who is not so much upwardly mobile as prone to drift in rising currents of hot air.

As a young man in London, Willie writes and publishes a book of short stories, as Naipaul did; and his sexual initiation and miseries carry that same tone of smoldering rage and contempt familiar from the other novels. Willie is a man without qualities, but through no fault of character. Everything he sees in India, Europe and Africa proves to be false or hollow -- at best, the self-serving mimicry of someone else's self-deception.

The problem with becoming disillusioned, of course, is that it can leave you susceptible to fresh nonsense. In Magic Seeds, Willie, in Germany on a visa due shortly to expire, falls under the spell of his sister's left-wing rhetoric, concludes that people in the West have been "reduced to a terrible simplicity" in which they "ate and watched television and counted their money." He heads back to India to join the revolutionary struggle. Arriving at a dilapidated airport, he thinks, "I must understand that now I am among people of more complicated beliefs and social ideas, and at the same time in a world stripped of all style and artifice. ... That is what I must see."

That willful effort to subdue his actual feelings is just the first act of violence against reality that Willie must undertake to become a Maoist guerilla -- an effort that soon reaches a dead end, a limbo of pointless conflict. Meeting an old revolutionary in a village, a veteran of 30 years of struggle, Willie asks, "How do you spend your time?"

"Avoiding capture, of course," the man answers. "Apart from that I am intensely bored. But in the middle of this boredom the soul never fails to sit in judgment on the world and never fails to find it worthless. It is not an easy thing to explain to outsiders. But it keeps me going."

Whether through lack of fervor or some lingering contact with reality, Willie surrenders to the authorities and ends up in jail. And then, back to London, which has in his absence become a postcolonial hybrid, part English and part Third World.

Another sort of novelist would be prone to giving Willie some moment of insight into the shapelessness of his own personality -- or perhaps a realization about the course taken by the world over the six decades of his life. Naipaul, however, is never tempted to let his central character do anything but drift. (Even Willie's little moment of waxing philosophical at the close sounds like an evasion of real insight.)

In interviews, Naipaul has indicated that Magic Seeds may be his last book. Finishing it, one has the sense that -- in returning to the novel, as if to say a farewell -- the author created a kind of scapegoat figure. It is as if Willie were an embodiment of all the anomie that Naipaul had to purge from his system in order to create.

There is a terrible purity to the prose. It is clean and dry, tough but never brittle. Naipaul is pitiless in depicting lies, shame and bad faith. He makes real life look like play-acting -- a fiction that nobody really believes. This sounds like misanthropy, and I suppose it is. But when you read Naipaul, it feels like cowardice ever to think otherwise.