It’s hard to resist the misery of V.S. Naipaul’s late fiction, hard not to surrender to its bleak and wary authority. What arguments do we have against it, what stupid, sunny alternatives could we bring ourselves to propose? Still, there are reasons for trying to resist. First, the misery is often dogmatic, composed of worldly observations that thrive only on failure. And second, in spite of Naipaul’s serious devotion to his own gloom, the misery is not all there is.
“To see the possibility, the certainty, of ruin, even at the moment of creation,” Naipaul writes in The Enigma of Arrival (1987): “it was my temperament.” This is multiple jeopardy, even at the level of the sentence. The possibility turns into a certainty as soon as it is mentioned. Sometimes it seems as if even ruin can’t be achieved or acknowledged. “The world should stop,” the central character thinks in Half a Life (2001), “but it goes on.” The same character says the materials in a naval museum in Africa are “like forgotten family junk, which no one wanted to throw away but which no one could identify and truly understand and honour.” But then this last suggestion has an ironic twist, desolate but not entirely despairing, since the notions of understanding and honor remain, even if they concern only junk and even if, as it happens, no one in this novel is quite up to them. “It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world” are almost the last words of Naipaul’s new novel, Magic Seeds. The figures in his later work don’t run much risk of this, since the apparent idealists are either psychopaths or people on the run from their life or both. But, taken together, the recent novels tell a slightly different story. They suggest that it would be good to die with something other than hate and rage in one’s heart. With some slight sense of understanding and honor intact, perhaps. This is a pretty low-grade hope, and perhaps the thing can’t be done at all. But given where Naipaul’s characters are starting from, the very intimation has a faint touch of idealism about it.
Half a Life and Magic Seeds really form two sections of a single novel, centered on Willie Somerset Chandran, who in the first part studies in England in the 1950s, at the time of the Suez crisis and then of the Notting Hill race riots in West London. He publishes a book of short stories, marries a Portuguese woman and lives for eighteen years in an unnamed colony that resembles Mozambique in every respect. At the end of that book he abandons Ana and Africa and joins his sister in Berlin. In Magic Seeds Willie leaves Germany to join a guerrilla group in India, engages in desultory but violent clandestine activities for seven years and then, losing the revolutionary faith he scarcely ever had, hands himself over to the police. After some time he is whisked away to London, where his old book has earned him a small but real reputation as “a pioneer of Indian postcolonial writing.” If sneers were audible we would hear Naipaul’s all the way from Wiltshire, wherever we were. Back in London, Willie meets up again with his English friend Roger, a successful but troubled lawyer, sleeps with his wife, thinks of becoming an architect. Just as Half a Life opens with a version of the story of Willie’s father’s life, as told to Willie over several years, so Magic Seeds all but ends with a version of the story of Roger’s extramarital affair with a working-class woman, an English echo of Willie’s father’s relationship with an untouchable.