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.
“All these years I thought the condescension was mine,” Roger says, thinking of the class hierarchy of their relationship. “That was the story Roger told, in bits, not in sequence, and over many weeks.” The novel actually ends with the title chapter, picking up a sardonic story from Half a Life about a young black man named Marcus. He is “the son of a West Indian who went to live in West Africa as part of the Back to Africa movement.” A charming fellow, “dedicated to inter-racial sex” and devoted to a single idea: “to have a grandchild who will be pure white in appearance.” At the end of Magic Seeds Willie and Roger attend the wedding of Marcus’s half-English son–he already has two children, one of them “as white as white can be.” The two children are pages, and one of them farts during the wedding, just after the excerpt from Othello and during the reading from a Shakespeare sonnet. “The guests lined up correctly on this matter,” Naipaul witheringly writes. “The dark people thought the dark child had farted; the fair people thought it was the fair child.” The sarcasm is easy, and the whole story is reductive and not very funny, but the word “correctly” gets at one of Naipaul’s main worries. Is intraracial embarrassment such an improvement on interracial suspicion? Naipaul knows the answer is yes, but he also knows how tangled the history is.
The title of Half a Life makes a half-rhyme with the start of an old proverb, once much heard by children who thought they didn’t have enough of whatever it was they had: Half a loaf is better than no bread. There is a parallel proposition, very popular among the older folks in my family when I was small: It’s worse where there is none. Naipaul’s last two novels, as I read them, are dedicated to testing this type of truism. “Perhaps both brothers are better off dead,” we read in the new novel. “This generation is lost, and perhaps the next as well. Perhaps both brothers have been spared an untold amount of useless striving and needless pain.” This bit of thinking is Willie’s deluded attempt to justify two mindless political murders, but that doesn’t mean the proposition is untrue. It is, we might say, half-true, like almost everything else in these books. There are half-lives that are not worth living. There are half-lives that are fairly desirable–particularly if you can throw off the idea of any sort of full life.
Naipaul certainly likes playing with these fractions. In The Enigma of Arrival he writes harshly of being corrupted by “my half-English half-education.” In Half a Life, people hear “half-news,” are “half-ready,” have a “half-feeling.” Portuguese settlers in Africa inhabit “only a half-and-half world.” A writer evokes a “quarter-real Indian town”; the politicians in a small pre-independence Indian state are “half-nationalists or quarter-nationalists or less.” In Magic Seeds the idea of the half-life is ubiquitous, and Willie makes a remark that is “half a joke, but only half.” There is the bewildering, tempting thought that in prison “you have to use mind or half-mind in a terrible, corrupting way.” This is an epidemic of hybridity and looks like, and sometimes is, colonial disgust, or what one of the characters in Magic Seeds calls “the colonial psychosis.”
Indians, says an Indian character in this novel, “have no idea of history.” They can’t make roads or finish buildings or get out of each other’s way, and they themselves think their country is “twenty times sadder than…Africa.” It’s “as though you could do anything with people here, give them anything to live in, fit them in anywhere.” The boys in one little town can’t even play cricket. They don’t have a proper bat or ball, and show “no style or true knowledge of the game.” This is ludicrous, and I hope Naipaul means it to be so. Certainly the scorn for the half-life crumbles once we realize that in this vision there are only half-lives, and that the British in India, comfortable and confident as they were, did not achieve a better moral fraction. And that at home they can’t play cricket as well as they used to.
We see the half-life differently when we live it ourselves. Naipaul has a fine phrase about Willie encountering “a kind of unreality, or a reality hard to grasp.” The second possibility has a humility the first one lacks, and this perspective is even clearer in a sentence that has Willie contemplating “all the pathos of his nondescript past.” If the nondescript has its pathos, then so does the half-and-half world, whether in Africa, India or London. When Willie left Ana in Africa he told her he was tired of living her life. She said, “Perhaps it wasn’t really my life either.” At the time Willie didn’t understand what she meant, but he now assumes she was saying “that her life was as much a series of accidents as I thought mine was.” “As I thought” is delicate, the very definition of the half-and-half. A life devoted to accident is thoroughly managed in its way.
The writing of these two novels is not only “clean and cold,” as J.M. Coetzee said of the first, but oddly abstract and often pitched as summary or outline rather than evocation: Evelyn Waugh without the detail or the jokes, you might think at first. Then you realize the jokes are there but quite remote: like a distant voice or a haughty manner. In Half a Life, Willie’s father keeps getting promoted in the tax department in spite of his incompetence and mild acts of sabotage. He says, “It was like civil disobedience in reverse.” A London prostitute tells Willie to keep his socks on. “Strange words,” Willie reflects, “heard often before, but never with such a literal meaning.” In Magic Seeds Willie is told when he joins the Indian guerrillas that he “looks at home everywhere.” He says, “It’s the one thing I have worked at all my life; not being at home anywhere, but looking at home.” Sometime later, during those guerrilla days, he kills an innocent farmer–at least I think he does, it’s hard to tell, that’s how distant the voice is. Willie trains a gun on the farmer, hears his commander’s voice tell him to shoot and we read: “And the figure who had been trembling in and out of the gunsight half spun to one side, as though he had been dealt a heavy blow, and then fell on the path on the slope.” It’s true that Willie realizes at this point that he is “among absolute maniacs,” but that’s all he seems to realize. This is not much of a joke, but it has the structure of a homicidal pratfall, the clown falling into the tub of water and killing the man who happened to be in it. Willie’s life is “a form of drift,” as he says. He is sensitive and intelligent, and sometimes means well. His most attractive feature, perhaps, is his shame. “I have so many causes of shame,” he says. “In India, London, and Africa. They are fresh after twenty years. I don’t think they will ever die. They will die only with me.” It is an important feature of Naipaul’s portrait of Willie that we don’t know what to make of this prophecy. His shame could have lasted twenty years and died the next day, since we know he has illuminations he thinks of as miracles (“he felt he was being given some idea, elusive, impossible to grasp, yet real”) and forgets within two weeks: “He settled into his new life, as he had settled into the many other lives that had claimed him at various times.” He represents the curious case of a man who keeps making the gestures of hope, since at age 52 he is still waiting for his life to start, and yet whose mind has none of the content associated with optimism.”The day I understood the real world the optimism leaked out of me.”
But then Willie does have insights that seem more durable, glimpses of “the darkness,” as he thinks, “in which everybody walked.” He remembers his “melancholy” father and his “aggressive” mother and understands “that there was no true place in the world for him.” Or for anyone else. Willie thinks “back to that childhood when on some especially unhappy evenings there came, with the utmost clarity, a child’s vision of the earth spinning in darkness, with everyone on it lost.”
The ideas of hate and rage frame Roger’s tale at the end of Magic Seeds. His modest ambition is not to die like his father, a courteous person who made himself happy by insulting everyone at the last. “I suppose you would say that for my father death was his truest and happiest moment.” Roger, less courteous in his earlier years, wants to die “at peace with the world,” but his last thoughts on the subject, delivered after the tale of his sad affair with the working-class woman, are not cheering: “Already I begin to feel, as yet in a small way, the great solace of hate.” Naipaul writes like a man who knows that solace, but finally prefers its counterpart: the misery that is undeniable but may be less than the whole story. Naipaul, in the end, is a novelist and not an ideologue. Tempted by despair, and clearly without optimism, he knows, although perhaps he would prefer not to, the limits of his own vision.