Naipaul’s Notes From Underground

Photograph by Manish Swarup/AP Photos

V. S. Naipaul’s great subject is humiliation. His books are about the myriad means by which we lay each other low: sexually and violently, of course, but also through class and caste privilege (which are always, in Naipaul’s hands, just another form of sex and violence). More interesting still—and related to all of these—is the profound historical humiliation of the Third World. “They!” cries the African Muslim narrator of the 1979 novel A Bend in the River. “When we wanted to speak politically … we said ‘the Americans,’ ‘the Europeans,’ ‘the white people,’ ‘the Belgians.’ When we wanted to speak of the doers and makers and the inventors, we all—whatever our race—said ‘they.’ We separated these men from their groups and countries and in this way attached them to ourselves. ‘They’re making cars that will run on water.’ ‘They’re making television sets as small as a matchbox.’ ” To have been put in contact with the forces of history but to be unable still to understand their sources—to live, as the title of the book suggests, in a place where things move along the river but you can only see a short distance into their past or their future: This is a humiliation.

How does one wrest dignity from such a world? Naipaul has some ideas. There is, first, the work of understanding, of history, the beginning of vision. There is also property: In A House for Mr. Biswas, it is the house itself, however “irretrievably mortgaged,” that saves Mr. Biswas’s honor in the months before his death. “That he should have been responsible for this,” Naipaul writes, “seemed to him, in these last months, stupendous.” And there has always been, in Naipaul’s fiction, the escape from the Third World’s humiliations into the solidity, and the anonymity, of London. Counter to all these aspirations has been the lamentable urge toward violent revolution: to burn down the knowledge, and houses, and to lash out at London.

In Magic Seeds, Naipaul returns to revolution and London, but he is suddenly far less certain of both. The novel follows the adventures of Willie Chandran, accidental man of the world, resident of dormitories and friends’ guest rooms, born in India to a high-caste father and a low-caste mother, whose escape to a teachers college in London and then his wife’s colonial estate in Africa we read about in Naipaul’s previous (and more powerful) novel, Half a Life. The new novel finds Willie, after his escape from both the wife and a colonial rebellion in Africa, in Berlin with his radical-chic sister, who nags and nags at him until finally he relents and … goes to India to join the Maoist guerrillas. Unfortunately, as his sister writes to inform him a few weeks after his arrival, he has ended up with the wrong guerrillas. By then it is too late. Willie remains with the guerrillas seven long years, becoming one of them, committing crimes on their behalf, terrorizing the countryside they claim to be representing, and then, after deciding to leave and turn himself in to the police, spending some time in jail before he is rescued by friends in England.

It is not among Naipaul’s better novels. He was once praised for the spareness of his prose style, which some people called, in shorthand, simplicity; that spareness has now become simple, and, in imitation perhaps of Tolstoy, or Gandhi, Naipaul has begun to write like a fabulist. The scenes are set pieces that invariably end with Willie spelling out the moral. This is a long way from the potent materialism of his early work, but the Indian portion of the novel still contains the heft and accumulated experience that have made Naipaul probably the most essential English-language novelist of our time. “You have no idea of the extent to which the victors won and losers lost here,” Willie’s first political-education instructor tells him, and as the book goes along, Willie does get some idea. He notices the tiny villagers, “cricket people,” produced by centuries of forced malnutrition, and a village of weavers performing what appears to be a beatific task—“it was hard to imagine that this spinning and weaving, which looked so much like some precious protected folk craft, was done only for the village, for the very poor, and was a desperate business for the people concerned, run on very narrow margins.” Willie doesn’t say so, but Marx mentions the mechanization of the loom in Capital as a way in which an increase in productivity can sharply devalue a form of labor. But that is the fate of much of the world.

Naipaul also records the relatively recent and seismic reaction to this fate. After his escape from India, Willie drives through the suburbs of London, a city he left in the late sixties in part because he feared for his life after the Notting Hill race riots. Now he is amazed: “His mouth was stopped. Increasingly on the winding main road there were Indians; and Pakistanis; and Bangladeshis… . Willie knew about the great immigration from the subcontinent; but (since ideas often exist in compartments) he hadn’t imagined that London … could have been so repeopled in thirty years.” In that short passage, there is so much—not only the claim of solidarity with the immigrants but also the claim to the literary tradition of the colonial power. T. S. Eliot, following Dante, had seen the streets of London crowded with the walking dead (“So many, / I had not thought death had undone so many”), to which Naipaul answers: All right, for these streets are being repeopled (wonderful world!) by my countrymen.

The rest of the London section is taken up by conservative diatribes and a description of English life that is so revolted and dark that one wonders whether Naipaul has been converted to the guerrillas’ arguments almost against his will. He resembles Saul Bellow in his late-life irritability. But Bellow in his last novel allowed his fictional surrogate to find the balm of friendship with a worldly philosopher. Willie, staying in the guest room of his friend Peter, who rescued him from jail, has perfunctory afternoon sex with Peter’s wife, Perdita. It is a bleak sight.

It is too bleak. And so despite the slackness of large portions of Magic Seeds and despite the eminent fairness of Naipaul’s recent declaration that he was going to quit writing novels and instead just read Balzac, it must be said that his work is not yet done. That work has been uniquely moving, and uniquely universal, in no small part because it dealt so honestly with Naipaul’s own humiliations and uncertainties. In interviews, he speaks with a mournful honesty of how late in life he received his Nobel Prize, and of how little pleasure he will be able to have from it. Well: It is some kind of life that allows a man to read all of Balzac, and Willie Chandran deserves at least a measure of that dignity. At the end of Magic Seeds, Willie has just turned 60, and is still crashing at his friends’. Even in the postindustrial West, 40 years is too long for that self-exploratory period after college. It needn’t take up an entire novel, but Willie should at least be allowed to find his own apartment. Or failing that, if Naipaul’s mood keeps tending downward, to burn it all down.

  When V. S. Naipaul left his native Trinidad for Oxford, he was narrowly focused on literary ambition—both his own and his frustrated-journalist father’s. In letters published in 2000 under the title Between Father and Son, Seepersad Naipaul wrote, “I have no doubt whatever that you will be a great writer,” but lamented his own stalemated career. Naipaul’s response betrayed his own desperation. In block letters, he wrote, “YOU HAVE ENOUGH MATERIAL FOR A HUNDRED STORIES… . STOP MAKING EXCUSES.” The letters also point up Naipaul’s ambivalence toward England. “There are asses in droves here,” he wrote. 

Magic Seeds
By V. S. Naipaul
Knopf. 288 Pages. $25.

Naipaul’s Notes From Underground