[Marxism] Nailing Naipul

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 3 08:14:49 MST 2004

LRB | Vol. 26 No. 21 dated 4 November 2004 | Theo Tait

Vicious Poke in the Eye
Theo Tait

Magic Seeds by V.S. Naipaul
Picador, 294 pp, £16.99

'Willie Chandran asked his father one day: "Why is my middle name 
Somerset?"' So begins Half a Life, the strange and chilling novel that 
V.S. Naipaul published in 2001 - thirty years or so after he first 
pronounced the novel a dying form. The story begins in the 1930s, in a 
South Indian princely state, where Willie's father embarks on a 
half-hearted and dubious rebellion against the 'servility' he sees all 
around him: against the false security of the maharajah's little state, 
against the pieties of his Brahmin family - 'foolish, foreign-ruled 
starveling priests'. He resolves 'to follow the mahatma's call', but 
chooses some unorthodox varieties of Gandhian sacrifice and civil 
disobedience. He decides to strike a blow against the evils of the caste 
system by taking 'the lowest person he could find' as his wife: a young 
woman from a 'backward' caste whose dark skin, 'coarse tribal features' 
and 'terrible rough voice' both repel and fascinate him. Meanwhile, he 
wages a low-level campaign of civil disobedience in the tax office where 
he works, destroying evidence of fraud - more, it seems, out of 
bloody-minded laziness than idealism. And so he finds himself not only 
miserable in his marriage and reviled by his family, but also facing 
prosecution for corruption. His reaction is to fall, 'as if by instinct, 
into the old ways': he walks barefooted and barebacked to the temple, 
and declares himself a mendicant.

Enter Somerset Maugham, in India to research The Razor's Edge, his 
proto-hippie novel about the search for spirituality. Maugham is shown 
round the temple by one of Willie's father's enemies, a man who knows 
what a scoundrel Willie's father is. Still, 'a good servant of the 
maharajah's tourist department', he tells Maugham what he wants to hear: 
a story about 'a man of high caste, high in the maharajah's revenue 
service, from a line of people who had performed sacred rituals for the 
ruler, turning his back on a glittering career, and living as a 
mendicant on the alms of the poorest of the poor'. Maugham writes 
admiringly about Willie's father in his travel book. He comes to be seen 
as the spiritual source of The Razor's Edge. Respect from abroad changes 
everything; everyone in the state pretends to see him as the English 
writer had seen him, as a holy man; the persecution stops. Willie's 
father sets up an ashram, which attracts many visitors from the West. 
Like Gandhi, he takes a vow of sexual abstinence; unlike Gandhi, he 
fails. The result is Willie - named in Maugham's honour - and his 
younger sister, Sarojini. Having told the story, Willie's father asks 
for his son's reaction. Willie says: 'I despise you.'

This brief tale constitutes, as it were, the founding myth of Willie 
Chandran - whose adventures are the subject of Half a Life and Magic 
Seeds, the novel which follows it. Like most of the first smart, 
sardonic novel, the story appears to have been thrown out with 
contemptuous ease. It proceeds at a pace - at the speed of an Evelyn 
Waugh satire, without a laugh in sight - while conveying in compressed 
form various of Naipaul's long-standing themes or obsessions. The sense, 
for instance, of ideas and beliefs being passed between different 
cultures, becoming meaningless or worse and demeaning both cultures in 
the process. The sense that India's spirituality is a con: a form of 
institutionalised poverty, institutionalised servility - 'a religious 
response to worldly defeat', as he put it in India: A Wounded 
Civilisation (1977). The characteristic mixture of tough-minded 
materialist analysis and atavistic horror: Willie's father's distaste 
for his low-caste wife is shudderingly well-evoked. It all expresses a 
complex form of rage (key Naipaulian term) towards India and Hindu 
culture: its disorder, its squalor, its indifference, its numbing 
rituals, its aping of foreign ways, the contradictions and confusions of 
its political movements. This rage sustained his two famous travel books 
about India: A Wounded Civilisation and An Area of Darkness (1964) - 
whose undoubted brilliance is matched only by their capacity to provoke 
and offend. The rage is still there in Magic Seeds when Willie joins his 
own Indian mutiny - son following father, falling back, in a complicated 
sense, into the old ways.

In the meantime, Willie has travelled the paradigmatic journey of 
Naipaul's later books: flight from home, the father, the family world - 
colonial, circumscribed, insecure - to London, moving from the margin to 
the centre of the imperial world. Like many of his heroes, he 
experiences the immigrant's dislocated life, he studies, he publishes 
essays and stories, and he endures the traditional Naipaulian tussles 
with prostitutes and loose women. He also has a love affair with a 
Portuguese-African woman named Ana; and returns with her to her country, 
which is clearly Mozambique. Then, after 18 years, Willie suddenly 
decides to leave; it's not his life, he tells her. Ana replies: 'Perhaps 
it wasn't really my life either.' Thus, abruptly and obliquely, the 
first book ends. Half a life, lived in 'half-and-half' worlds - and 
probably half a novel, too.

'How terrible it would have been,' the narrator of A House for Mr Biswas 
(1961) says, 'to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to 
one's portion of the earth; to have lived as one had been born, 
unnecessary and unaccommodated.' More terrible still is the same idea, 
stripped of any sympathy, which opens A Bend in the River (1979): 'The 
world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become 
nothing, have no place in it.' Willie threatens to become just such an 
un-person: a 'casualty of freedom', to use Naipaul's fine ironic phrase 
from In a Free State (1971). When we catch up with him at the beginning 
of Magic Seeds, he has left Africa and is living in Cold War Berlin with 
his sister Sarojini, 'in a temporary, half-and-half way'. His search for 
a place in the world, for wholeness, starts again as if from scratch. 
Sarojini, like her brother, has also made an 'international marriage', 
to Wolf, a radical-chic German documentary-maker. She talks glibly about 
Lenin, Mao, 'the Pol Pot position' and the 'the Lin-Piao line' - 'the 
words of someone still mimicking adulthood' - and encourages him to take 
up a violent revolutionary cause. Willie listens 'in his blank way' and 
says nothing; but eventually shame and resolution grow in him, and he 
agrees to join a movement in India.

Naipaul explained the genesis of the first half of Magic Seeds in a 
recent interview. 'I went to India and met some people who had been 
involved in this guerrilla business, middle-class people who were rather 
vain and foolish. There was no revolutionary grandeur to it. Nothing. 
And I put the whole thing out of my head. And then, as is often the 
case, I found a way of using that material as it should be used.' The 
reference is to the Bengali Communists that he interviewed for India: A 
Million Mutinies Now (1990). These two men, a science professor and a 
company executive, went from Calcutta to the villages of Bengal as part 
of the Naxalite movement: a Maoist peasant rebellion that started in 
1967 and spread across India, feeding off the discontents and earlier 
rebellions of the poorer, lower castes. Their story follows the 
trajectory of much of Naipaul's political writing: the movement goes, 
'stage by abstract stage, from a raw, humiliated concern with the poor 
and India, to cultural and economic suicide, new compulsions and 
violations, and a cause far removed from the peasant's hunger'. Soon the 
party line sanctions individual killing of 'class enemies'; generally, 
the easy targets - lone policemen, the smaller landlords who don't have 
much protection.

full: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n21/tait01_.html

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