V S Naipaul's return to fiction three years ago was an oddly muted effort, giving the impression that the doubts he had raised about the novel as an exhausted form still persisted in his mind. Half a Life wasn't a mediocre book: the supple, pared-down prose registered psychological turmoil without drawing unnecessary attention to itself, and the depiction of Willie Chandran, the confused Indian fortuitously named after "Willie" Somerset Maugham, was occasionally moving. Yet there remained something unresolved about the book, as if all the old themes (India and Africa as "half-made societies"; male sexuality in perpetual existential crisis; London no more than a mix of racial indifference and liberal pieties) were being filtered through a screen, conveyed to us as faint echoes far removed from their source.
Magic Seeds is a novel aware of the unfinished status of its predecessor; it picks up where Half a Life left off, with Willie in Berlin, his marriage over, still unsure of his place in the world. His sister Sarojini has no such doubts. She sees battles being waged in Africa and India, a long-overdue challenge to old hierarchies that Willie has ignored out of his "colonial psychosis". She urges her brother to join the revolution, and Willie agrees to return to India to take part in a peasant rebellion. From what we know of Willie, this seems an unlikely role for him to play. Yet one is initially willing to brush aside any doubts. The narrative voice seems confident, tackling the relationship between mass politics and the individual head-on. Even the title has a hopeful ring to it, quite unlike the anomie evoked by Half a Life. And there is something compelling about Willie's desire to reinvent himself after sleepwalking through most of his life.
It doesn't last. After some years spent skulking around in teak forests and a brief period of incarceration, Willie returns to London. But the England to which he is airlifted is suffering from its own inversion of hierarchies: the welfare state has wrought its changes everywhere, releasing on to the landscape an intransigent working class, women with voracious sexual appetites, and people of colour who are working multiculturalism to their own canny ends. Willie's own thinking is too confused to register the implications of this transformation, but the pattern is traced for him by his host Roger: "The servant class has vanished. No one knows what they have metamorphosed into."
This theme, of rebellions that always turn sour, will be familiar to readers of Naipaul's previous novels. It comes with the territory, and is sometimes made worthwhile by other elements of his writing: the interest in characters disfigured by social change; an instinct for the jagged detail that captures character or place; the use of simple, specific words (and a corresponding hostility towards abstraction); the deft expositions. These are the qualities that have made Naipaul one of the finest social novelists of our time; yet none of these is enough to rescue Magic Seeds.
Naipaul's gift for social observation has always had to struggle against the current of his political sensibility, his unwillingness to register the full implications of what his novelist's eye has sought out. In this book, where the idea being confronted is the rationale behind mass political movements, his characteristic feeling for form, language and character is swamped by a tide of distaste for Maoists, Indian peasants, British workers, white liberals and women. The failures of radical armed movements and the welfare state may be worth examining, but Naipaul's idea of critique consists of placing pebbles in a dead man's mouth. The self-incriminating lines his characters are given choke them before they have had a chance to breathe:
"It's a classic revolutionary story. Most people would have gone back to the town and taken a bus or train home, and gone back to their studies and to screwing the servant girls. But I persevered. And here you see me, 30 years later. Still going among the peasants with the philosophy of murder."
This is crude caricature, and one need only compare it with Naipaul's interview with a former Maoist in India: a million mutinies now (1990) to see how constricted his writing has become, how the old prejudices have expanded to devour almost everything appealing about his writing.
Willie himself is a blank, and this is part of the problem. In Naipaul's earlier novels, it was sometimes possible to read the misogyny, racism and elitism as the point of view of the protagonist; one thinks of Salim in A Bend in the River (1979), his barely concealed hysteria surfacing in frequent exclamation marks ("Wine! It was hard to get the simplest food . . ."; "What a strain it was, picking your way through stupidity and aggressiveness and pride and hurt!"). Unlike Salim, however, Willie has no capacity for overemphasis, and Naipaul's prose has to strain to work in the denunciations of the subalterns.
There are passages of disembodied observation, unattached to character, as when Willie dreams of the Indian sugar factory where he is temporarily working:
. . . fellow workers . . . walking to and fro in a kind of slow hellish silhouetted dance to the flat wide concrete drying place with small baskets of wet bagasse on their heads, and then with empty baskets in their hands, with others in the distance taking the night's dried bagasse to feed the factory furnace, the flames from the bagasse leaping an extraordinary beautiful turquoise and casting an extra pale green glow on the small, dark bodies, shining and wasted: about sixty men in all doing what ten men with wheelbarrows could have done in the same time, and what two simple machines could have done with little fuss.
There is something Dickensian about this, but it is Dickens in summary, ripped from its Victorian context, converted into bathos by the trite conclusion that a spell of mechanisation is all that is required to quell the miseries of the sugar factory.
A similar triteness is evident elsewhere - in Willie's portrayal of the English masses as fattened dole-scroungers, or of the poor in India as aggrieved and lean from deprivation. It is as if Naipaul has lost the thread that connects these aspects of the world, and in so doing has abandoned the insight into character that allowed him to illuminate the workings of the human mind. "It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world," Willie reflects at the end, but this has the hollow ring of platitude rather than the resonance of knowledge gained through living. It is, in effect, the closing of a complacent circle of reasoning, a summation of what was to be proved. This is a pity, because Naipaul's novels have often succeeded against the grain of his conservatism, breathing life into people struggling to retain their footing on the slope of modernity. The novel as a form may not be exhausted, but Magic Seeds shows us a writer who has nothing more to tell us until he reinvents himself and his world.
Siddhartha Deb's new novel, An Outline of the Republic, will be published by Picador next year