The plot unfolds simply enough: Middle-aged man who feels life has passed him by goes out in search of excitement and finds it. In the hands of fierce skeptic V.S. Naipaul, not only does this man find it, but it turns out to be less than he expected and barely anything at all. Magic Seeds, Naipaulís first novel since his 2001 Nobel Prize, picks up where his more fully realized í01 Half a Life left off, after its fortysomething writer/narrator Willie Chandran has left his mixed-race wife of 18 years in search of something. Seeds finds Chandran in Berlin living with his radical filmmaker sister Sarojini, who bluntly reminds him that heís been in Germany a while and that he needs to figure out what heís going to do because she might not be able to renew his visa.
That ďa whileĒ is purposely vague; save Berlin and London, where Chandran eventually lands, everything in Seeds is a murky series of events, people, and places filtered through Chandranís obstinately unreliable narrator. Sarojin convinces him to join up with some Leftist guerrillas led by the elusive Kandapalli in India and join a freedom fight while connecting with his Indian heritage; once there, Chandran drifts into a band of middle-class pseudo-warriors who speak a curry of Maoist, Marxist, and other revolutionary piffle. Ever pliable, Chandran becomes a disaffected guerrilla, implicated in murders and eventually incarcerated.
Naipaulís fiction and nonfiction career is one long treatise on postcolonial cultural nomadism, an intellectual excursion through his own Trinidadian heritage via Indian and European histories and culture. And while Seeds superficially jibes with such an enterprise, it is a very different book for Naipaul. He has always wielded his mind like a surgeonís scalpel, dissecting the skin of grand ideas personal, political, and philosophical to lay bare the selfishness, greed, and delusion underneath. Here heís reduced his incisive gift to rote autopsy, mechanically slicing through life as if he was no longer interested. Stripped of his usual acute observation and brutal elegance, Seeds is practically an essay. Conversations read more like lectures, and the bulk of the Chandranís guerrilla experience feels like disinterested ethnographic reporting turned internal monologue, making Seeds a compact novel of ideas ŗ la Albert Camusí The Fall.
All of which would be fine had Naipaul any ideas to put forth. Nihilistic personal kicking against the pricks of progress is certainly nothing new in literature or Naipaul, as pessimistic a mind as any out there, but his career is marked not by the venom of his thought but the architecture behind it. Seeds betrays the adroit thinking that produced such politically informed works as Guerrillas or A Bend in the River, and concludes with some of the laziest writing Naipaul has ever let see the light of day. Chandran is released from jail through a flabbergasting contrivance and relocated to London with Roger, the sketchy lawyer who springs him, and Rogerís wife, Perdita, with whom Chandran has mechanical sex. Then Seeds ends in a vindictive parry against any -ism: ďIt is wrong to have any ideal view of the world. Thatís where the mischief starts.Ē Earlier Naipaul would have brought you to this vertiginous edge of ennui, but here he doesnít offer any reasons as to why we should listen.