V.S. Naipaul’s books are not Fabergé eggs. They are not made out of, and not intended for, detached aesthetic contemplation; they are passionately engaged with the world. They have also proved to be, in at least two ways, prophetic. First, what at one point seemed a lonely body of work can now be seen as explaining an entire field of study that is known as Postcolonialism, which examines the writing, politics, history, and modes of thought of the developing world. Postcolonialism as a field is dominated by left-leaning academics, with whom Naipaul has almost nothing in common; but he is nonetheless a crucial, minatory, alarming writer for anyone with any interest in the field, not least because he dissents from all its orthodoxies.
Second, and more importantly, the world has caught up with Naipaul’s great preoccupation with how people’s lives turn in unexpected directions, especially the way in which the pressures of modern society and social fragmentation have caused a terrible longing for old certainties, reassuring fantasies, and violence. His account of a journey through the Islamic world, Among the Believers (1981), is, in this respect, a central book. It has become a truism to point out that fundamentalist religion is a very modern phenomenon, and in particular to point out how many of the ideologues of militant Islam had their formative experience in a violent reaction against the individualistic, secular modern life of the West; but if this analysis has become a truism it is one that was first, best, and most clearly set out by Naipaul.
The diptych formed by Half a Life (2001) and now Magic Seeds sees Naipaul again tackling these subjects. Their main character is Willie Chandran, a weak, soft, lost, hapless, but strangely difficult to dislike Indian writer or sort-of writer. He is another of Naipaul’s men caught between worlds, no longer at home in India and not fully a man of the West: dislocated, semi-assimilated. It is a status caught even in his name, about which we heard right at the beginning of Half a Life:
Willie Chandran asked his father one day, “Why is my middle name Somerset? The boys at school have just found out and they are mocking me.”
His father said without joy, “You were named after a great English writer. I am sure you have seen his books about the house.”
“Without joy”—Naipaul has a great gift for such crushingly economical observations. It turns out that the story of Willie’s birth and naming is a cross-cultural tragicomedy. Willie’s father, a descendant of priests, became overexcited by the example of Gandhi, and decided “nothing less than to make a sacrifice of myself.” He makes a point of going up to a lower-class girl and sitting with her while she is in a tea shop. That gesture, repeated over a series of days, is all it takes to throw away his life chances. The girl’s family hears about the non-courtship and …
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