By V.S. Naipaul
Knopf. 280 pp. $25
Magic Seeds, from Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, isn't much of a novel; the prose is alternately odd and masterful, and the book will puzzle many readers. In particular, the overall aimlessness of the plot provokes restiveness and is likely to cause one to wonder: Am I missing something? Is this book somehow more interesting and profound than it seems? Much of the first half is surprisingly dull, but the writing grows more lively later on, building to a mesmerizing chapter near the end called "Suckers." Virtually a short story about the love affair between an upper-class lawyer and a council-flat slattern, these 31 pages are all too true-to-life and utterly gripping.
As Magic Seeds opens, Willie Chandran -- the protagonist of Naipaul's well-received Half a Life -- has left Africa and is living with his sister in Berlin. As usual, he simply drifts along for a while, occasionally remembering his revolutionary days in the jungle, the wife of 18 years he has abandoned, his ongoing search for personal meaning. When his sister tells him about a political visionary comparable to Marx and Mao, Willie decides to join Kandapalli's movement and makes his way back to India, then into the hinterland to what he thinks is Kandapalli's headquarters. But, as it turns out, he has inadvertently joined a rival faction, soon feels trapped, and eventually spends several years as one of its couriers and operatives.
So what's bothersome about this first half of Magic Seeds? Willie is deeply introverted and compliant, without affect, his existential alienation reminiscent of Meursault's in The Stranger. Naipaul's faux-naif prose is similarly flat, a series of declarative sentences that often sound like late Hemingway in their weighty sing-song simplicity. This textual anomie -- a deadened tone, coupled with a plotless narrative and an emotional unflappability that distances rather than involves -- soon leads to readerly antsiness: Can't we get on with this? Where's the story?
All we get instead is Willie's hypersensitivity and a few well-turned observations about his various comrades in the movement. Throughout one hungers for a bit of sprightliness, a little sunshine. Every page feels so tired. "I looked across at you and found you looking at me. I held your gaze for a while and longed to make love to you. I tried some time later. I did it badly. But it took a lot of courage to try. I wonder if you knew that." And so on. Still, now and again, Naipaul shows some razzmatazz:
"He arrived at what some people still called the hour of cow-dust, the hour when in the old days a cattle boy (hired for a few cents a day by the village) drove the village cattle home in a cloud of dust, and the golden light of early evening turned that sacred dust to soft, billowing gold. There were no cattle boys now; there were no landowners to hire them. The revolutionaries had put an end to that kind of feudal village life, though there were still people who needed to have their cattle looked after, and there were still little boys who pined to be hired for the long, idle day." This is neatly executed, with a sharp opinionated edge. But then in the next paragraph Naipaul resorts to syntax like this: "They [the guerrillas] were noticeable in their thin olive uniforms and peaked caps with a red star: trousers-people, as the tribals respectively called them, and with guns." What is that colon doing there, not to mention that dangling phrase "with guns"? Magic Seeds is speckled throughout with a superfluity of such colons and semicolons, keeping the sentences and paragraphs resolutely declarative, as though the author were leery of subordinate clauses.
But other oddities disturb too. In one passage a friend asks Willie if he's ever "done a job" and is told, "I've never done a job. My father never did a job. My sister has never done a proper job." British English can be deceptive, but surely a person holds a job; criminals do jobs. And so spiritually listless is Willie that he never gets excited, even when his thoughts -- he does more thinking than talking -- approach the level of bumper-sticker profundity: "You can't take a gun and kill that unhappiness. All you can do is to kill people." The Greeks, we learn, "had slaves. Today we are all our own slaves." Still, just when the reader, or at least this reader, is ready to give up on Willie, Naipaul flies his idealistic hero back to England. There we meet Roger, a disillusioned attorney, and his blithe cynicism refreshes the page:
" 'I used to know a girl at the Debenhams perfume counter,' said Willie. "Hardly knew her, really. She was the friend of a friend, and all the time she was engaged to somebody else. The whole thing is too embarrassing to think about now. Do you think she would remember, after twenty-eight years?'
"Roger said, 'She would remember. When she counts her lovers -- and she would do that quite often -- she would count you in.'
" 'How terrible. What do you think would have happened to her?'
" 'Fat. Faithless. Betrayed. Complaining about the wicked world. Vain. Talking too much. Commoner than ever. Women are more physical and more shallow than one imagines.' "
Naturally Roger would know all this, having been long obsessed by the very physical and shallow Marian. His tale is a familiar one -- the successful businessman sexually addicted to a woman with whom he has nothing in common -- and Naipaul tells the old story well, though also using it to derogate the English underclass, made up in his view of illegitimate welfare babies, crackhead fathers and aging fat bimbos. Such vitriol again shows itself in a gratuitously cruel gibe at the career of novelist Angus Wilson, never named but quite obviously Wilson. Not surprisingly -- like calling to like -- Naipaul even twice echoes a line from Evelyn Waugh (about the heartache following the breakup of that novelist's first marriage): "I didn't know it was possible to suffer so much." But that is pathetic Roger speaking, not our apathetic hero. At the end of Magic Seeds -- Naipaul's title recalls the fairy-tale dream of instant wish-fulfillment -- the now disillusioned Willie concludes that "it is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That's where the mischief starts. That's where everything starts unraveling."
This is largely true: Whenever an ideology seems more important than any individual, then any horror becomes justifiable. But it is also true of novels -- when program predominates over story, the result is tedium. Naipaul doesn't escape this trap in Magic Seeds, even though he pens some brilliant sentences -- "Girls from the village appeared here with trays of cheap drink, and gave everyone something to do." Such neatly turned aperçus make Magic Seeds worth reading, even if its multi-pronged critique of idealism -- as manifested in revolutionary politics, modern social beneficence and passionate love -- tends toward the simplistic and debatable.
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@ washpost.com. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. he discusses books online at washingtonpost.com.