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Magic Seeds by V.S. Naipaul

Lester Pimentel

Both Roger and Willie are, in effect, poorly disguised mouthpieces for Naipaul's right-wing socio-political observations.


Magic Seeds

Publisher: Vintage
Length: 280
Price: $14.00
Author: V.S. Naipaul
US publication date: 2005-11
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"It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That's where the mischief starts. That's where everything starts unraveling." The apercu belongs to Willie Chandran, the peripatetic protagonist of V.S. Naipaul's latest novel Magic Seeds. More than his other works, this didactic cautionary tale about the perils of utopianism crystallizes Naipaul's essentially conservative worldview.

Naipaul's transformation -- from avatar of post-colonial angst to Thatcherite apostle -- mirrors Willie's own ideological peregrination. The political has always been personal in Willie's life. He is, after all, the child of a politically inspired union, as we learned in Half a Life (2001). Moved by Gandhi's calls for a life of sacrifice and the rejection of old values, Willie's Brahmin father marries a lower-caste woman for whom he feels nothing but repulsion. The father's obvious regret and disdain, combined with the mother's upper-class pretensions and ambition, make for a miserable marriage. Willie, desperate to get away from such a toxic household, jumps at the opportunity to attend university in England. After fully immersing himself in the hipster culture of 1950s London, Willie meets Ana, a Portuguese-African estate heir whom he weds and follows to a decrepit East African colony (Mozambique). For 18 years, Willie inhabits the "half-and-half world" of "second-rank Portuguese" -- the mixed-race ruling class to which his wife belongs. With tribal conflict looming in the wake of a guerilla war that expels the Portuguese colonial regime, Willie, tired of "living my wife's life," abruptly breaks off his marriage to Ana.

Magic Seeds opens six months later in West Berlin, where Willie's sister Sarojini, a political radical and documentary filmmaker, lives. It's now the early 1980s, and Willie, suffering a mid-life crisis, becomes enraptured by his sister's revolutionary fervor. Like his father, Willie looks to Gandhi's life of commitment to the poor, and decides to join a movement aimed at liberating the lower castes in the forests of India. The underground lines to the movement get crossed, however, and Willie finds himself among a more militant, quasi-communist outfit of fanatics bent on realizing their utopia at all costs.

That their acts of terrorism and, in some instances, self-immolation remind us of today's Jihadists is, of course, no mere coincidence. Naipaul has long been an outspoken critic of radical Islam, if not Islam in general. Besides being one of the most distinguished writers of his generation, many believe the Nobel committee awarded him its literary prize in the wake of 9/11 for, shall we say, political reasons. Magic Seeds is, in part, a meditation on the extremist mind. Who are these men? What drives them to commit extraordinary acts of violence?

Willie's wild-eyed comrades are the losers left in the wake of decolonization.

Like Einstein, Ramachandra was a man of upper caste, perhaps the highest. Such people were having a hard time in the world outside; populist governments had set all up all kinds of barriers against them since independence; many of them, fearing slow impoverishment at home, were now migrating to the United States, Australia, Canada, England. Ramachandra and Einstein were doing something else. Within the movement, they were embracing their persecutors.

Like Willie, these men are motivated by a "pastoral vision":

He [Willie] had persuaded himself that outside the noise and rush and awfulness of cities was this quite different world where things followed an antique course, which it was the business of the revolution to destroy. This pastoral vision contained the idea that the peasant labored and was oppressed. What this pastoral vision didn't contain was the idea that the village... was full of criminals, as limited and vicious and brutal as the setting, whose existence had nothing to do with the idea of labor and oppression.

"Naipaul's target here is "Third Worldism" -- a romantic glorification of the poor (particularly in the developing world) often found on the political left. The members of Willie's movement think of the peasants and laborers as inherently noble and revolutionary when, in fact, they are, like all human beings, flawed and, in most cases, apolitical. Frustrated by the villagers' lack of revolutionary zeal, the movement's logic grows more perverse. An edict calling for the murder of the class enemies -- "peasants with a little too much land" -- marks a radical change in the movement's tactics that Willie cannot condone. He abandons the revolution and surrenders to the police.

In a letter to his sister from his prison cell in India, Willie delivers a searing indictment of the movement and its fellow travelers abroad. "That war was not yours or mine and it had nothing to do with the village people we said we were fighting for. We talked about their oppression, but we were exploiting them all the time," Willie writes. "Our ideas and words were more important than their lives and their ambitions for themselves." This not not-so-subtle attack on left-wing intellectuals marks the beginning of Naipaul's strident conservative critique of the post-colonial world's ideological sympathizers in the West.

Willie, set free under the terms of a special amnesty negotiated by his British friend Roger, returns to a London made unrecognizable by the welfare policies and cultural decadence. Roger fills Willie in on the scourge of council flats and the cycle of out-of-wedlock children spawned by socialism's culture of dependency. Marian, Roger's mistress, is cast in the role of welfare queen, whose "mistakes" (unwanted pregnancies by different men) provide a steady stream of benefits that allow her to live carefree on the dole. The absurd caricature does not end there, however. Marian is also a poster child for the crassness of the sexual revolution. "Are you going to bugger me?" are her famous words to Roger. To drive home the point of Marian as a comprehensive distillation of conservative bete noires, we learn that she has "semi-political ideas about "the naturalness of artistic talent -- and its classlessness." Culture, lest we forget, is the province of the aristocracy. In perhaps the most telling passage, Roger identifies the source of this cultural miasma: "...our ideas of doing good to other people, regardless of their need, are out of period, a foolish vanity in a changed world. And I have grown to feel, making that point much larger, that the nicer sides of our civilization, the compassion, the law, may have been used to overthrow that civilization."

Though we should be wary of attributing the beliefs of a character to his author, we are probably right to suspect that Naipaul shares Roger's conservative views. Naipaul never challenges Roger's critique. Both Roger and Willie are, in effect, poorly disguised mouthpieces for Naipaul's right-wing socio-political observations. "There is no one thing that is an answer to the ills of the world and the ills of men. It has always been your failing --," Willie writes in a letter to Sarojini. History has certainly been unkind to social engineering and heaven-on-earth political panaceas. Magic Seeds' attempt to chronicle this past is ultimately disappointing, however. The account is too neat, too partisan. Sadly, Naipaul's once-illuminating prism has become clouded by the fog of ideology.

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