The New York Times
Magic Seedsby V. S. Naipaul
Willie Chandran - whom we first met in Half a Life - is a man who has allowed one identity after another to be thrust upon him. Now, in his early forties, after a peripatetic life, he succumbs to the demanding encouragement of his sister - and his own listlessness - and joins an underground movement in India ostensibly devoted to unfettering the lower castes. But… See more details below
Willie Chandran - whom we first met in Half a Life - is a man who has allowed one identity after another to be thrust upon him. Now, in his early forties, after a peripatetic life, he succumbs to the demanding encouragement of his sister - and his own listlessness - and joins an underground movement in India ostensibly devoted to unfettering the lower castes. But seven years of revolutionary campaigns and several years in jail convince him that the revolution 'had nothing to do with the village people we said we were fighting for,' and he feels himself further than ever 'from his own history and...from the ideas of himself that might have come to him with that history.' When he returns to England where, thirty years before, his psychological and physical wanderings began, he finds the fruit of another unexpected social revolution (more magic seeds), and he comes to see himself as a man 'serving an endless prison sentence' - a revelation that may finally release him into his true self.
The New York Times
—New York magazine
"A novel of careful craft … fresh ideas, unexpected turns."
—The Globe and Mail
"[Naipaul] is a modern master of the multiple ironies of resentment, the claustrophobia of the margins. In a world in which terrorism continually haunts the headlines, Naipaul’s work is indispensable."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"When Naipaul talks, we listen."
—The Atlantic Monthly
Praise for Half a Life:
“Naipaul is a master of English prose and the prose of Half a Life is as clean and cold as a knife.”
—J. M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize
“Here, sentence by sentence, is the consummate craftsmanship, the perception, the precision, the style.”
—The Globe and Mail
Read an Excerpt
It had begun many years before, in Berlin. Another world. He was living there in a temporary, half-and-half way with his sister Sarojini. After Africa it had been a great refreshment, this new kind of protected life, being almost a tourist, without demands and without anxiety. It had to end, of course; and it began to end the day Sarojini said to him, "You've been here for six months. I may not be able to get your visa renewed again. You know what that means. You may not be able to stay here. That's the way the world is made. You can't object to it. You've got to start thinking of moving on. Do you have any idea of where you can go? Is there anything you feel you want to do?"
Willie said, "I know about the visa. I've been thinking about it."
Sarojini said, "I know your kind of thinking. It means putting something to the back of your mind."
Willie said, "I don't see what I can do. I don't know where I can go."
"You've never felt there was anything for you to do. You've never understood that men have to make the world for themselves."
"Don't talk to me like that. That's the way the oppressor class thinks. They've just got to sit tight, and the world will continue to be all right for them."
Willie said, "It doesn't help me when you twist things. You know very well what I mean. I feel a bad hand was dealt me. What could I have done in India? What could I have done in England in 1957 or 1958? Or in Africa?"
"Eighteen years in Africa. Your poor wife. She thought she was getting a man. She should have talked to me."
Willie said, "I was always someone on the outside. I still am. What can I do here in Berlin?"
"You were on the outside because you wanted to be. You've always preferred to hide. It's the colonial psychosis, the caste psychosis. You inherited it from your father. You were in Africa for eighteen years. There was a great guerrilla war there. Didn't you know?"
"It was always far away. It was a secret war, until the very end."
"It was a glorious war. At least in the beginning. When you think about it, it can bring tears to the eyes. A poor and helpless people, slaves in their own land, starting from scratch in every way. What did you do? Did you seek them out? Did you join them? Did you help them? That was a big enough cause to anyone looking for a cause. But no. You stayed in your estate house with your lovely little half-white wife and pulled the pillow over your ears and hoped that no bad black freedom fighter was going to come in the night with a gun and heavy boots and frighten you."
"It wasn't like that, Sarojini. In my heart of hearts I was always on the Africans' side, but I didn't have a war to go to."
"If everybody had said that, there would never have been any revolution anywhere. We all have wars to go to."
They were in a café in the Knesebeckstrasse. In the winter it had been warm and steamy and civilized with its student waiters and waitresses and welcoming to Willie. Now in late summer it was stale and oppressive, its rituals too well known, a reminder to Willie-in spite of what Sarojini said-of time passing fruitlessly by, calling up the mysterious sonnet they had had to learn by heart in the mission school. And yet this time removed was summer's time . . .
A young Tamil man came in selling long-stemmed red roses. Sarojini made a small gesture with her hand and began to look in her bag. The Tamil came and held the roses to them, but his eyes made no contact with theirs. He claimed no kinship with them. He was self-possessed, the rose-seller, full of the idea of his own worth. Willie, not looking at the man's face, concentrating on his brown trousers (made by tailors far away) and the too-big gold-plated watch and wristlet (perhaps not really gold) on his hairy wrist, saw that in his own setting the rose-seller would have been someone of no account, someone unseeable. Here, in a setting which perhaps he understood as little as Willie did, a setting which perhaps he had not yet learned to see, he was like a man taken out of himself. He had become someone else.
Willie had met a man like that one day, some weeks before, when he had gone out on his own. He had stopped outside a South Indian restaurant, without customers, with a few flies crawling on the plate-glass windows above the potted plants and the display plates of rice and dosas, and with small amateurish-looking waiters (perhaps not really waiters, perhaps something else, perhaps electricians or accountants illegally arrived) lurking in the interior gloom against the cheap glitter of somebody's idea of oriental decoration. An Indian or Tamil man had come up to Willie then. Soft-bodied, but not fat, with a broad soft face, and with a flat grey cap marked with thin blue lines in a wide check pattern, like the "Kangol" golfer's caps that Willie remembered seeing advertised on the back pages of the early Penguin books: perhaps the style had come to the man from those old advertisements.
The man began to talk to Willie about the great guerrilla war to come. Willie was interested, even friendly. He liked the soft, smiling face. He was held by the flat cap. He liked the conspiratorial talk, the idea it carried of a world about to be astonished. But when the man began to talk of the great need for money, when this talk became insistent, Willie became worried, then frightened, and he began to back away from the restaurant window with the trapped, drowsy flies. And even while the man still appeared to smile there came from his soft lips a long and harsh and profound religious curse delivered in Tamil, which Willie still half understood, at the end of which the man's smile had gone and his face below the blue-checked golf cap had twisted into a terrible hate.
It unsettled Willie, the sudden use of Tamil, the ancient religious curse into which the man had put all his religious faith, the deep and abrupt hate, like a knife thrust. Willie didn't tell Sarojini about the meeting with this man. This habit of keeping things to himself had been with him since childhood, at home and at school; it had developed during his time in London, and had become an absolute part of his nature during the eighteen years he had spent in Africa, when he had had to hide so many obvious things from himself. He allowed people to tell him things he knew very well, and he did so not out of deviousness, not out of any settled plan, but out of a wish not to offend, to let things run on smoothly.
Sarojini, now, lay the rose beside her plate. She followed the rose-seller with her eyes as he walked between the tables. When he went out again she said to Willie, "I don't know what you feel about that man. But he is worth far more than you."
Willie said, "I'm sure."
"Don't irritate me. That smart way of talking may work with outsiders. It doesn't work with me. Do you know why that man is worth more than you? He has found his war. He could have hidden from it. He could have said he had other things to do. He could have said he had a life to live. He could have said, 'I'm in Berlin. It's cost me a lot to get here. All the false papers and visas and hiding. But now that's done. I've got away from home and all that I was. I will pretend to be part of this rich new place. I will watch television and get to know the foreign programmes and start to think that they are really mine. I will go to the KDW and eat at the restaurants. I will learn to drink whisky and wine, and soon I will be counting my money and driving my car and I will feel that I am like the people in the advertisements. I will find that, really, it wasn't hard at all to change worlds, and I will feel that that was the way it was meant to be for all of us.' He could have thought in that false and shameful way. But he saw he had a war. Did you notice? He never looked at us. Of course he knew who we were. He knew we were close to him, but he looked down on us. He thought we were among the pretenders."
Willie said, "Perhaps he was ashamed, being a Tamil and selling roses to these people and being seen by us."
"He didn't look ashamed. He had the look of a man with a cause, the look of a man apart. It's something you might have noticed in Africa, if you had learned to look. This man's selling roses here, but those roses are being turned to guns somewhere else far away. It's how revolutions are made. I've been to some of their camps. Wolf and I are working on a film about them. We'll soon be hearing a lot more about them. There is no more disciplined guerrilla army in the world. They are quite ferocious, quite ugly. And if you knew more about your own history you would understand what a miracle that is."
Another day, in the zoo, in the terrible smell of captive and idle wild animals, she said, "I have to talk to you about history. Otherwise you will think I am mad, like our mother's uncle. All the history you and people like you know about yourselves comes from a British textbook written by a nineteenth-century English inspector of schools in India called Roper Lethbridge. Did you know that? It was the first big school history book in India, and it was published in the 1880s by the British firm of Macmillan. That makes it just twenty years or so after the Mutiny, and of course it was an imperialist work and it was also meant to make money. But it was also a work of some learning in the British way and it was a success. In all the centuries before in India there had been nothing like it, no system of education like that, no training in that kind of history. Roper Lethbridge went into many editions, and it gave us many of the ideas we still have about ourselves. One of the most important of those ideas was that in India there were servile races, people born to be slaves, and there were martial races. The martial races were fine; the servile races were not. You and I half belong to the servile races. I am sure you know that. I am sure you half accept that. That is why you have lived as you have lived. The Tamils selling roses in Berlin belong wholly to the servile races. That idea would have been impressed on them in all kinds of ways. And that British idea about the servile and the martial races of India is utterly wrong. The British East India Company army in the north of India was a Hindu army of the upper castes. This was the army that pushed the boundaries of the British Empire almost to Afghanistan. But after the great Mutiny of 1857 that Hindu army was degraded. Further military opportunities were denied them. So the warriors who had won the empire became servile in British propaganda, and the frontier people they had conquered just before the Mutiny became the martial ones. It is how imperialisms work. It is what happens to captive people. And since in India we have no idea of history we quickly forget our past and always believe what we are told. As for the Tamils in the south, they became dirt in the new British dispensation. They were dark and unwarlike, good only for labour. They were shipped off as serfs to the plantations in Malaya and Ceylon and elsewhere. Those Tamils selling roses in Berlin in order to buy guns have thrown off a great weight of history and propaganda. They have made themselves a truly martial people, and they have done so against the odds. You must respect them, Willie."
And Willie listened in his blank way, in the bad smell of the unhappy animals in the zoo, and said nothing. Sarojini was his sister. No one in the world understood him so well. She understood every corner of his fantasies; she understood everything of his life in England and Africa, though for those twenty years they had met only once. He felt that, without words passing between them, she, who had developed in so many ways, might have understood even the physical details of such sexual life as he had had. Nothing was hidden from her; and even when she was at her most revolutionary and ordinary and hectoring, saying things she had said many times before, she could, by an extra phrase here and there, calling up aspects of their special shared past, start touching things in him that he would have preferred to forget.
He said nothing when she spoke, but dismissed nothing that she said. Gradually in Berlin he noticed something about her which he had never noticed before. Though her talk never ceased to be about injustice and cruelty and the need for revolution, though she played easily with tableaux of blood and bones in five continents, she was strangely serene. She had lost the edginess and aggression which she had had in the early days of her life. She had been rotting in the family ashram, with nothing but piety and subservience to look forward to; and for many years after she had left, that dreadful ashram life, offering simple and needy people counterfeit cures for everything, was still close to her, as something to which she might have to return if things turned out badly with Wolf.
She didn't have that anxiety now. Just as she had learned how to dress for a cold climate, and had made herself attractive (the days of cardigan and woollen socks with a sari had been left far behind), so travel and study and the politics of revolution, and her easy half-and-half life with the undemanding photographer, appeared to have given her a complete intellectual system. Nothing surprised or wounded her now. Her world view was able to absorb everything: political murders in Guatemala, Islamic revolution in Iran, caste riots in India, and even the petty theft practised as a matter of shopkeeping habit or principle by the wine-shop man in Berlin when he delivered to the flat, two or three bottles always short or changed, the prices altered in complicated, baffling ways.
Meet the Author
V. S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. After four years at University College, Oxford, he began to write, and since then has followed no other profession. His books include Literary Occasions, A House for Mr. Biswas and The Enigma of Arrival. In 2001 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
- Wiltshire, England
- Date of Birth:
- August 17, 1932
- Place of Birth:
- Chaguanas, Trinidad
- Queen's Royal College, Trinidad, 1943-48; B.A., University College, Oxford, 1953
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