- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2005

MAGIC SEEDS

By V. S. Naipaul

Knopf, $25, 280 pages

V. S. Naipaul’s new novel, “Miracle Seeds,” is the second installment of the author’s narrative of the life of Willie Chandran, a native of India whose father was a Brahman and his mother a member of a much lower caste. Mr. Naipaul’s 2001 novel, “Half a Life,” published the same year he won the Nobel Prize for literature, introduced readers to Willie, who grew up in that book, went to college in London, published a collection of stories about India, got dubbed by reviewers a rising star of Indian literature, and then went off to Africa where he lived with Ana, a part-Portuguese, part-African woman he’d met in England.

At the beginning of this novel, Willie — who was named for the English novelist William Somerset Maugham, a man his father met as a young man — has fled Africa and Ana and is living with his younger sister, Sarojini, in Berlin. Sarojini and her companion, a German documentary filmmaker, are left-wing intellectuals, of the verbal variety: They mouth loyalty to revolution and side with the downtrodden of the world while never involving themselves directly with revolutionary violence.

But they know people who are committed to violence and Sarojini puts Willie, who is now about 40, in touch with leftist guerrilla warriors in India. Willie joins up — by accident he finds himself a member of a very a violent and disaffected band, not the milder one his sister intended that he become a part of — and spends the next several years of his life in remote, rural India tramping through jungles and sharing the the harsh life of his fellow rebels.

Willie befriends three guerrillas and relishes those friendships which comes as a suprise because he regarded each man with suspicion when they first met. With a rifle and at a distance, he kills a rich man as proof of his revolutionary mettle. But Willie along with one of the guerrillas he’s come to know and like grow weary and disillusioned with the life they’ve been living and turn themselves into the police. They’re sentenced to jail. But Sarojini and English friends work for his release, arguing that the book of stories he’d publilshed nearly three decades earlier proves that he is basically a literary man, not a terrorist.

They succeed and at the novel’s conclusion Willie is free and in London, where Indian officials have required him to live as a condition of his release. That’s the bare bones of the story that “Miracle Seeds” tells. But out of Willie’s passive, modest and sometimes pathetic life, Mr. Naipaul manages to say a great deal about the 20th century and social upheaval.

In the end, if Willie doesn’t become an everyman in whom readers can see themselves writ large, he does serve as a witness to the violence and change he sees all around him wherever he is and which he observes with (sometimes) a clear eye and uncommon intuition.

Mr. Naipaul’s main themes are big ones and familiar to readers of his fiction and nonfiction: the nature of guerrilla warfare and revolution, for example, and what draws men and women to it; what individual human identity means in a world where old ways rapidly disappear and new habits of mind and behavior haven’t been created. But above all, Mr. Naipaul is interested in the vast social transformations that have struck almost every square foot of the globe.

Willie takes note of what he calls the “churning of the castes” that is taking place in his native country, a churning that promises, he believes, to change India profoundly — and soon. When he returns to England after his time in prison and three decades after he was first there, he sees how immigration of former British colonials has made London and much of the rest of the country very different from the one he recalled.

Back in England, too, he wonders what has become of the large class of men and women who a century earlier were in service to the nation’s wealthy and high-born, the group of butlers and upstair maids and the like that has almost entirely disappeared and left almost no trace of its passing. Willie, who along with some of his English friends is something of a snob, suspects their descendents are the folks who live in the “council estates” of every town and village, “clusters of subsidised dwellings meant originally for the poor.”

It is when he is among the guerrillas in the forests of India, however, that Willie Chandran comes to understand himself most clearly. Revolution has lured him, in part, because he vaguely senses that commitment to a cause and action upon it might make a more complete man of him and supply the sense of direction he lacks.

But that sense of identity however strong at first quickly proves ephemeral. The boredom and idleness natural to guerrilla warfare where much time is spent waiting around take their toll. Still, Willie’s greatest disillusionment with the guerrilla enterprise is learning what his fellow revolutionaries are like, and how little they have thought out the ramifications of the violence and social upheaval they advocate.

It doesn’t take very long for him to notice the remarkable immaturity of his revolutionary colleagues, and concludes they are for the most part “middle-aged men full of childhood pique but capable of adult rage.” He also sees their vanity and self-regard. The guerrillas boast “competitively of the austerity of their lives,” each claiming to have outdone the others when it comes to self-denial, hardships endured, and purity of commitment.

And during his guerrilla years, revolution itself becomes for Willie a supremely dishonest goal, based on no true understanding of human nature and what people need. He finds that the villages — the very areas the guerrillas sought to “liberate ” and free from oppression are full of criminals who are “as limited and vicious and brutal as the setting” they live in and “whose existence had nothing to do with the idea of labour and oppression.”

In short, the peasants don’t want what the guerrillas are eager to bring them. Willie realizes that the past, as cruel and mean as it sometimes was, “had a kind of wholeness that” the revolutionaries “couldn’t begin to care about and couldn’t replace.” With that understanding, not surprisingly, Willie’s revolutionary ardor turns frigid. He can no longer celebrate the destruction of what he now realizes can never be replaced.

What to do? Back in England after his release from jail, he grows interested in architecture and plans to devote the rest of his life to that field. It’s practical; it can provide homes where people can live out their lives. He also has two chilling epiphanies which sum up both the wisdom Willie has gleaned from life and what Mr. Naipaul wants to make the central message of this novel.

Both are profoundly conservative, and both look deeply into the flaws of revolution: “… I have grown to feel … that the nicer sides of our civilisation, the compassion, the law, may have been used to overthrow that civilisation,” Willie thinks. Later, he adds: “It’s wrong to have an ideal view of the world. that’s where the mischief starts. That’s where everything starts unravelling.” Indeed, it is the unravelling of our world around us, the coming undone of the old and the failure of the new to answer for what is gone, that Mr. Naipaul sees and records so accurately in this book, and his other work as well.

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