‘Willie Chandran asked his father one day: "Why is my middle name Somerset?”’ So begins Half a Life, the strange and chilling novel that V.S. Naipaul published in 2001 – thirty years or so after he first pronounced the novel a dying form. The story begins in the 1930s, in a South Indian princely state, where Willie’s father embarks on a half-hearted and dubious rebellion against the ‘servility’ he sees all around him: against the false security of the maharajah’s little state, against the pieties of his Brahmin family – ‘foolish, foreign-ruled starveling priests’. He resolves ‘to follow the mahatma’s call’, but chooses some unorthodox varieties of Gandhian sacrifice and civil disobedience. He decides to strike a blow against the evils of the caste system by taking ‘the lowest person he could find’ as his wife: a young woman from a ‘backward’ caste whose dark skin, ‘coarse tribal features’ and ‘terrible rough voice’ both repel and fascinate him. Meanwhile, he wages a low-level campaign of civil disobedience in the tax office where he works, destroying evidence of fraud – more, it seems, out of bloody-minded laziness than idealism. And so he finds himself not only miserable in his marriage and reviled by his family, but also facing prosecution for corruption. His reaction is to fall, ‘as if by instinct, into the old ways’: he walks barefooted and barebacked to the temple, and declares himself a mendicant.
Enter Somerset Maugham, in India to research The Razor’s Edge, his proto-hippie novel about the search for spirituality. Maugham is shown round the temple by one of Willie’s father’s enemies, a man who knows what a scoundrel Willie’s father is. Still, ‘a good servant of the maharajah’s tourist department’, he tells Maugham what he wants to hear: a story about ‘a man of high caste, high in the maharajah’s revenue service, from a line of people who had performed sacred rituals for the ruler, turning his back on a glittering career, and living as a mendicant on the alms of the poorest of the poor’. Maugham writes admiringly about Willie’s father in his travel book. He comes to be seen as the spiritual source of The Razor’s Edge. Respect from abroad changes everything; everyone in the state pretends to see him as the English writer had seen him, as a holy man; the persecution stops. Willie’s father sets up an ashram, which attracts many visitors from the West. Like Gandhi, he takes a vow of sexual abstinence; unlike Gandhi, he fails. The result is Willie – named in Maugham’s honour – and his younger sister, Sarojini. Having told the story, Willie’s father asks for his son’s reaction. Willie says: ‘I despise you.’
This brief tale constitutes, as it were, the founding myth of Willie Chandran – whose adventures are the subject of Half a Life and Magic Seeds, the novel which follows it. Like most of the first smart, sardonic novel, the story appears to have been thrown out with contemptuous ease. It proceeds at a pace – at the speed of an Evelyn Waugh satire, without a laugh in sight – while conveying in compressed form various of Naipaul’s long-standing themes or obsessions. The sense, for instance, of ideas and beliefs being passed between different cultures, becoming meaningless or worse and demeaning both cultures in the process. The sense that India’s spirituality is a con: a form of institutionalised poverty, institutionalised servility – ‘a religious response to worldly defeat’, as he put it in India: A Wounded Civilisation (1977). The characteristic mixture of tough-minded materialist analysis and atavistic horror: Willie’s father’s distaste for his low-caste wife is shudderingly well-evoked. It all expresses a complex form of rage (key Naipaulian term) towards India and Hindu culture: its disorder, its squalor, its indifference, its numbing rituals, its aping of foreign ways, the contradictions and confusions of its political movements. This rage sustained his two famous travel books about India: A Wounded Civilisation and An Area of Darkness (1964) – whose undoubted brilliance is matched only by their capacity to provoke and offend. The rage is still there in Magic Seeds when Willie joins his own Indian mutiny – son following father, falling back, in a complicated sense, into the old ways.
In the meantime, Willie has travelled the paradigmatic journey of Naipaul’s later books: flight from home, the father, the family world – colonial, circumscribed, insecure – to London, moving from the margin to the centre of the imperial world. Like many of his heroes, he experiences the immigrant’s dislocated life, he studies, he publishes essays and stories, and he endures the traditional Naipaulian tussles with prostitutes and loose women. He also has a love affair with a Portuguese-African woman named Ana; and returns with her to her country, which is clearly Mozambique. Then, after 18 years, Willie suddenly decides to leave; it’s not his life, he tells her. Ana replies: ‘Perhaps it wasn’t really my life either.’ Thus, abruptly and obliquely, the first book ends. Half a life, lived in ‘half-and-half’ worlds – and probably half a novel, too.
‘How terrible it would have been,’ the narrator of A House for Mr Biswas (1961) says, ‘to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.’ More terrible still is the same idea, stripped of any sympathy, which opens A Bend in the River (1979): ‘The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.’ Willie threatens to become just such an un-person: a ‘casualty of freedom’, to use Naipaul’s fine ironic phrase from In a Free State (1971). When we catch up with him at the beginning of Magic Seeds, he has left Africa and is living in Cold War Berlin with his sister Sarojini, ‘in a temporary, half-and-half way’. His search for a place in the world, for wholeness, starts again as if from scratch. Sarojini, like her brother, has also made an ‘international marriage’, to Wolf, a radical-chic German documentary-maker. She talks glibly about Lenin, Mao, ‘the Pol Pot position’ and the ‘the Lin-Piao line’ – ‘the words of someone still mimicking adulthood’ – and encourages him to take up a violent revolutionary cause. Willie listens ‘in his blank way’ and says nothing; but eventually shame and resolution grow in him, and he agrees to join a movement in India.
Naipaul explained the genesis of the first half of Magic Seeds in a recent interview. ‘I went to India and met some people who had been involved in this guerrilla business, middle-class people who were rather vain and foolish. There was no revolutionary grandeur to it. Nothing. And I put the whole thing out of my head. And then, as is often the case, I found a way of using that material as it should be used.’ The reference is to the Bengali Communists that he interviewed for India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). These two men, a science professor and a company executive, went from Calcutta to the villages of Bengal as part of the Naxalite movement: a Maoist peasant rebellion that started in 1967 and spread across India, feeding off the discontents and earlier rebellions of the poorer, lower castes. Their story follows the trajectory of much of Naipaul’s political writing: the movement goes, ‘stage by abstract stage, from a raw, humiliated concern with the poor and India, to cultural and economic suicide, new compulsions and violations, and a cause far removed from the peasant’s hunger’. Soon the party line sanctions individual killing of ‘class enemies’; generally, the easy targets – lone policemen, the smaller landlords who don’t have much protection.
By the time Willie becomes a guerrilla – roughly at the end of the 1970s – the rot has set in long ago. He goes with the intention of joining Kandapalli (probably a reference to Kondapalli Seetaramaiah, founder of the People’s War Group, which conducted an armed uprising in the forests of Andhra Pradesh). Eventually, after a tortuous recruitment process, he arrives at the rebel training camp in a teak forest; he realises immediately that he has ‘fallen among the wrong people’, come to ‘the wrong revolution’. These people are dropouts from the towns and cities, playing at guerrillas, playing at killing. This is soon confirmed by a letter from Sarojini. There has been a mistake: ‘The movement, as you know, has split, and what has happened is that you are among psychopaths . . . The comfort is that you are all serving the same cause in the end, and the time may come one day when you may be able to cross over and join Kandapalli’s people.’
Willie spends seven years among the psychopaths. He lives a boring, occasionally violent and, above all, pointless life. The guerrillas haunt the forests, railway towns, and filthy tanneries, recruiting, carrying messages or arms, or waiting for orders that never come. They push deeper into the forest ‘to extend the liberated areas’, to ‘occupy and re-educate’. They fail: the peasants do not want to be liberated. These people are desperately poor: they are outcasts, ‘half-tribals’, ‘cricket people, matchstick people’, their bodies flimsy and their ‘minds gone’ after ‘centuries of slavery and abuse and bad food’. (As always with Naipaul, the line between hating oppression and hating the oppressed is hazy.) Among the revolutionaries, frustration with the recalcitrance of the cricket people begins to build up. At their many meetings, they debate their lack of progress, and complain about the ‘poor human material’ they have to work with. The ‘pastoral vision’ of the oppressed peasant, Willie thinks, fails to acknowledge that the villages are ‘full of criminals, as limited and vicious and as brutal as the setting’. Another guerrilla says: ‘These people will begin to understand the revolution only when we start killing people.’ So they start to kill.
‘When jargon turns living issues into abstractions,’ Naipaul wrote in The Return of Eva Peron (1980), ‘and where jargon ends by competing with jargon, people don’t have causes. They only have enemies; only the enemies are real.’ This section follows the Naipaul line very closely: a dreamed-of utopia becomes a living hell. He creates a bad-dream atmosphere, a phantasmagoria of boredom, futile journeys, wasted lives and endless, incantatory meetings – punctuated by episodes of sickening violence. It is highly effective, and highly unpleasant. The Conradian theme – the corruption of causes – is complemented by Conradian grotesques, men driven by rage and shame to nihilism, now visible in their faces: ‘He had small, hard, mad eyes. He fingered his gun with his bony fingers every time he spoke.’ Willie consoles himself by concentrating on ‘the yoga of his hour-to-hour life, looking on each hour, each action, as challenging and important’. But eventually even Willie, naive and unanchored as he is, realises that he must leave. This, too, is bungled: he confuses surrender with amnesty, and is surprised to find himself imprisoned when he hands himself in. After the yoga of the movement comes the yoga of the prison. Until, with one of the abrupt, semi-comic changes of scene and mood that characterise these two novels, he is saved: one of his English literary friends, Roger, a lawyer, persuades the authorities to release him, on the grounds that a long-forgotten book of stories established Willie as ‘a pioneer of modern Indian writing’.
So Willie finds himself again en route to what Naipaul in The Mimic Men (1967) calls ‘the greater disorder, the final emptiness: London and the Home Counties’. Willie is awarded a sinecure at a ‘high-class public relations’ magazine by ‘the banker’, a powerful friend of Roger’s with a taste for strays. The third act of Magic Seeds is a very strange comedy of manners, with brief observational detours into ‘the great churning’ of postwar immigration, the fanaticism and servility of ‘the Arab faith’, the dreariness of modern urban Britain. (Of Cricklewood, Willie says: ‘I wouldn’t want to live here. Imagine coming back here day after day. What would be the point of anything?’) But the last hundred pages are dominated by sex, and Naipaul’s obsession with sex between races, between castes. The subject is submerged through most of the novel. This is surprising, since Half a Life is, to a large extent, concerned with sex: after his bad experiences in London, Willie finds sensual fulfilment in Africa at the local brothels, and in an intense affair with the wife of an estate overseer – until he discovers, belatedly and alarmingly, that she is ‘a simple person’, half-mad.
A similarly intense affair forms the centre-piece of the English section of Magic Seeds: Roger’s account of his relationship with Marian, ‘a council-estate woman’, who first enchants him when he sees her ‘black, coarse elasticated pants slipping low’ as she gets out of a car. Roger’s story begins with a broad-brush right-wing history of the failures of socialism in England, and proceeds with a hilariously prurient and unidiomatic account of the sexual mores of the lower classes: ‘It was all part of the sex game, part of the weekend clubbing . . . At the end there was sex for everyone, however fat, however plain.’ Much of this section is so weird it defies paraphrase:
She said, in her cool way, looking down at me: ‘Aren’t you going to bugger me?’
I didn’t know what to say.
She said: ‘I thought that was where you were going.’
I still didn’t know what to say.
She said: ‘Did you go to Oxford or Cambridge?’ And with a gesture of irritation reached across the bed for her bag. Easily, as though she knew where it was, she took out a tube of lip salve.
I hesitated. She passed the lip salve to me, saying: ‘I am not doing this for you. You do it.’
I hadn’t thought it possible for a naked, exposed woman to be so imperious.
She commanded. I obeyed. How well I did I didn’t know. She didn’t tell me.
It is an astounding amalgam of smut and snobbery, distaste and slavering fascination, which ends with an elegantly disgusted account of an interracial marriage. Willie’s aimless life has earlier been contrasted with that of Marcus, a West African diplomat, who has happily fixated on ‘one ambition’: ‘to have sex only with white women and then one day to have a white grandchild’. That happy day has come, and now Marcus’s son Lyndhurst, ‘big-chested, thuggish-looking, with Africa more than half scrubbed off him’, is to marry a pale aristocrat, the mother of his children. Their two children, one dark, one ‘as white as white can be’, are beside them as they tie the knot. One of the two children farts during the ceremony. ‘But the guests,’ we are told, ‘lined up correctly on this matter: the dark people thought the dark child had farted; the fair people thought it was the fair child.’ Soon after the contested fart, Roger develops a migraine; he and Willie return home, with the ‘slave music’ of the Dutch Antillean wedding band still ringing in their ears. Naipaul is often painted as a fearless critic of lazy left-liberal nostrums, a disillusioned scourge of mumbo-jumbo ancient and modern. He’s offering something much simpler here: a calculated affront to the egalitarian and multicultural values of modern Britain. But it’s also far stranger, more personal, and more excessive than that: the term ‘politically incorrect’ doesn’t begin to cover it – ‘politically obscene’ is nearer the mark.
Magic Seeds, even more than its predecessor, is a horrible novel – icy, misanthropic, pitiless, purposefully pinched in both its style and its sympathies. If The Enigma of Arrival (1987), a sad and wonderful book, belongs to Naipaul’s ‘autumnal stage’, this is bleak midwinter: the cold fury before the end. You could say Naipaul was just playing up to his reactionary reputation, as he does in interviews, railing against multiculturalism (‘a racket’), New Labour (a ‘socialist revolution’ producing an ‘aggressively plebeian culture’ that ‘celebrates itself’) or Saudi Arabia and Iran (‘they probably should be destroyed, actually’). The great diagnostician of societies, as V.S. Pritchett described him, seems to have given up on the job – he now just jabs the patient playfully in the liver, or pokes him viciously in the eye.
But Magic Seeds is not just a book-length piece of bufferish provocation. Though difficult and often physically disturbing to read, it has resonant images, an insidious intelligence, and the distant cousin of a sense of humour. ‘These random, unresolved pieces of terror or disquiet or anxiety,’ a reviewer of Willie’s book says in Half a Life, ‘seem in the most unsettling way to come out of no settled view of the world.’ This goes some way to explaining the effect of Magic Seeds. Like much of Naipaul’s work, it’s a saga of authenticity lost, of wholeness destroyed. But as always, this coexists with a rage for order, a need to analyse, to simplify, to compress. Naipaul still has what, in The Mimic Men, he calls ‘the gift of the phrase’, of ‘letting simple words harden into settled judgments and attitudes’. Like voices in a chorus, character after character offers judgments that are too simple and generalisations that are too subjective. This, like a dark parody of the Olympian pronouncements of Naipaul’s travel books, is Willie’s India: ‘the terrible India of Indian family life – the soft physiques, the way of eating, the ways of speech, the idea of the father, the idea of the mother, the crinkled, much-used plastic shop bags (sometimes with a long irrelevant printed name)’. This is Roger: ‘The servant class has vanished. No one knows what they have metamorphosed into.’ This is one of the guerrillas: ‘No revolution can be a movement of love. If you ask me, I will tell you that the peasants ought to be kept in pens.’ The overall effect is a nightmarish chaos of opinion and association, within a punishing, abstracted form – creating, as Willie puts it, ‘a child’s vision of the world spinning in darkness, with everyone on it lost’.
Magic Seeds confirms the forbidding drift of Naipaul’s talent: since A House for Mr Biswas, doomed to be more admired than loved, and since A Bend in the River, probably more respected than read. As Thackeray said of Swift, Naipaul leaves the reader with conflicting desires: wanting both to damn him – ‘filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene’ – for having, as it were, given up on being human; but also to acknowledge a gloomy genius: ‘So great a man he seems to me, that thinking of him is like thinking of an empire falling.’