The 2001 Nobel winner continues the story of Willie Chandran (Half a Life, 2001), an Indian-born writer (and presumable authorial surrogate).
We first glimpse Willie, a perpetual itinerant and outsider, after he’s left his Portuguese wife and Africa and moved to Berlin, where he’s staying with his sister Sarojini and her German husband. Sarojini’s revolutionary ardor rebukes his phlegmatic indifference to causes and allegiances, and so—somewhat improbably—Willie travels to India to join a Communist-led rebellion on behalf of that country’s underprivileged and exploited lower castes. He spends several years as a “soldier” and courier—vacillating between hopeful commitment and the cynical suspicion that his comrades are driven by unworthy agendas and doomed to fail—before surrendering to police and accepting imprisonment as the fate he deserves. Then his release is unexpectedly secured by old friend Roger, a British attorney, who argues Willie’s special status as an internationally significant writer. Freed, Willie returns to London and the home of Roger and the wife (Perdita) with whom he shares a desiccated, loveless open marriage. The novel’s emphases then shift curiously, as Willie’s reentry into intellectual life (working for a small architectural magazine) is subordinated to his subdued rediscovery of sex (with equally passive Perdita) and sharpened awareness of the slough of amoral cheapness into which England—and, by extension, Western civilization—seems to him to have lapsed. Naipaul ends with Willie’s characteristically resigned expostulation “It’s wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That’s where the mischief starts.” Magic Seeds (the title alludes ironically to the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk) is a superbly elaborated screed, which eloquently restates the case for perceiving the contemporary world as irretrievably fallen: it’s a case Naipaul has been making for decades.
This great writer’s rhetorical and constructive mastery remain unimpaired. But he’s still beating horses so long dead that the stench is becoming overpowering.