Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Frontières, marges et confins

Corinne Alexandre-Garner

Espace psychique et expérience de l’altérité

“These people don’t know the other side of things”1 or the Disquieting Experience of Otherness in V. S. Naipaul’s Magic Seeds

Isabelle Keller-Privat

Texte intégral

  • 1 . Naipaul, V. S. Magic Seeds. London : Picador, 2004, 210. All further references to Magic Seeds qu (...)
  • 2 . Adams, Tim. Tuesday September 14, 2004, The Observer.
  • 3 . Naipaul, V. S. Half a Life. London : Picador, 2001.

1VS. NAIPAULS MAGIC SEEDS STANDS OUT as the exemplary illustration of what may be called the “borderland novel”. Indeed, not only do the very first lines introduce us to a “borderland” character living “in a temporary, half and half way”(1), but they also refer the reader back to the first half of Willie Chandran’s life in Half a Life which narrates Willie’s “half and half” life as an Indian exile in London who eventually leaves with his wife for a Portuguese colony in East Africa. Thus, Magic Seeds seems to take up the story line after Willie’s separation from his wife as he leaves Africa to live with his sister in Berlin before joining an underground movement in India aiming to free the lower castes from thraldom. After seven years of revolutionary tribulations, he escapes to England. The narrative coherence is strengthened by the explicit symmetry established between the tripartite structure of Magic Seeds and that of Half a Life. However, in the course of an interview with Tim Adams V. S. Naipaul asserts that “he does not see the book particularly as a sequel.’ This thing was quite a separate idea,’ he says. ‘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. [...] 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.’”2 Such words only sharpen the prickly status of the novel : if it is not to be read as the narrative sequel to Half a Life why should Naipaul have chosen to refer consistently to his previous novel throughout Magic Seeds ? If it is to be seen as an anthropological study of Indian revolutionary movements, why call it “a novel” and resort to a narrative line which was explicitly introduced as fictitious through the preface of Half a Life which stated that : “This book is an invention. It is not exact about countries, periods or situations it appears to describe”3 ? What should we make of a novel which appears to spring from the type of sociological enquiry which led Naipaul to write travel books such as Among Believers or Beyond Belief and which the author himself fails to define for good, referring to it as “this thing”? Describing it as “quite a separate idea”, Naipaul may be intending to give us a hint at the precarious, fringe position, which his writing deliberately cultivates. The reader is therefore led to expect a “half and half” book, both “an invention” and a reflection of and upon an aspect of Indian political history, “not exact” yet aiming at faithfulness throughout Willie’s journey which seems to run parallel to Naipaul’s although Willie, unlike Naipaul, apparently fails to discover inspiration in England, and leaves us with an unwritten story : “But I can’t write to Sarojini about that.” (294)

2This paper will attempt to explore the paradoxical, thought-challenging nature of Magic Seeds by considering the various facets of this “half and half” novel which inevitably raises the questions of identity and otherness we know to be dear to Naipaul, questions which, as we shall see, remain unsolved, as Naipaul prefers to leave his readers with the magic seeds of questioning rather than with the fruit of passion.


3As early as its very first lines, Magic Seeds throws the reader into a baffling nowhere-‘nowhen’ land by introducing him to a story which started both “before” and “in another world”: “It had begun many years before, in Berlin. Another world” (1). From the reader’s viewpoint the spatio-temporal ellipsis which is hinted at here can be understood as referring both to Half a Life, the unacknowledged initial instalment of Willie’s story, and to the preface-a puzzling and unusual preface, made of a single italicised sentence of 19 lines. The reader will only recognise it as an instance of Willie’s free indirect speech once he has grown acquainted with the narrative which is to unfold. Thus, the preface serves as the textual frontier the reader must cross in order to enter the story. However, just as the incipit sweeps him into an inaccessible past, the preface asks him to project himself into a yet untold story, which is to start

LATER - IN THE teak forest, in the first camp, when during his first night on sentry duty he had found himself for periods wishing only to cry, and when with the relief of dawn there had also come the amazing cry of a far-off peacock, the cry a peacock makes in the early morning after it has had its first drink of water at some forest pool : a raucous, tearing cry that should have spoken of a world refreshed and re-made but seemed after the long bad night to speak only of everything lost, man, bird, forest, world ; and then, when that camp was a romantic memory, during the numbing guerrilla years, going on and on, in forest, village, small town, when to travel about in disguise had often appeared to be an end in itself and it was possible for much of the day to forget what the purpose of the disguise was, when he had felt himself decaying intellectually, felt bits of his personality breaking off ; and then in the jail, with its blessed order, its fixed time-table, its protecting rules, the renewal it offered—later it was possible to work out the stages by which he had moved from what he would have considered the real world to all the subsequent areas of unreality : moving as it were from one sealed chamber of the spirit to another. [My emphasis] (n. p.)

4As the reader tries to find his way through the elaborate syntax he slowly recognises the outline of the narrative. But of course this realisation can only come “later”, once he has finished reading the novel. Such a beginning naturally raises the question of the boundaries of the story proper : does it start right now, with the very first words of the preface, i. e., “later”, after Willie’s return from India, or does it start “many years before”, i. e., with chapter one, before his departure to India ? Whatever option we may choose, we only have access to a displaced ‘now’- either that of the prolepsis of the preface or that of the analepsis of chapter one. Therefore, the reader is placed at an impossible temporal frontier, torn apart between “later” and “before”, in a sort of ‘nowhen’ land, at a paradoxical starting point which is also the vanishing point of the narrative.

5The syntax of the preface plays on the disorienting accumulation of temporal clauses introduced by ‘and when’ or “and then, when” which, far from giving the reader stable temporal landmarks, end up blurring the time frame. The extraposition of the main clause, separated from the adverbial clauses by the dash, creates a strangely dilated rhythm seemingly designed to play with the reader’s patience, just as this unending “first night on sentry” which set Willie’s nerves on edge. This dilatory syntax is all the more unnerving for the reader who tries to establish a first contact with the yet unknown world of Willie’s whereabouts and is constantly promised a beginning-“the first camp”, “his first night”, “the early morning”, “its first drink”-which keeps eluding him. As a consequence, the temporal displacement acquires a spatial reality through the concatenated sentence which postpones the beginning of the narrative and foreshadows another temporal displacement induced by memory : “later it was possible to work out the stages by which he had moved from [...] the real world to all the subsequent areas of unreality”. This main clause announces both a delayed story and a narrative in the pluperfect, bent on recapturing the past. Thus, the narrative dichotomy between “later” and “before” is reverberated at the syntactic level and it comes as no surprise that chapter one should start on a pluperfect as the grammatical counterpart to spatial estrangement : “It had begun many years before, in Berlin.” (1)

6The conjunction of spatial and temporal displacement prepares the reader to follow Willie’s disquieting experience of otherness as he moves from Berlin to India and eventually to London. Interestingly, the European cities are the only precise landmarks and the reader is at a loss when it comes to pinpointing Willie’s Indian journey. His own status, as “almost a tourist” (1) is unclear, just as his purpose. Sarojini, his sister, indirectly defines what his aim should be : “men have to make the world for themselves” (2) and “we all have wars to go to” (3). On the other hand, Willie defines himself as “someone on the outside” (2), a definition which negates any kind of roots as he is not “from outside”, which would imply a precise identity, but in the unsteady position of the borderland character. And as Sarojini further expatiates on her positive definition of man’s fully realised self as a revolutionary, Willie defines himself antithetically against the “self-possessed” rose-seller who stands as the epitome of the revolutionary “full of the idea of his own worth” (3). This marginal definition of the central character is reverberated both in Willie’s dialogues with his sister and in his relationship to strangers. Thus, when meeting the “Indian or Tamil man” in a Berlin restaurant, Willie discloses a mixture of sympathy and fear towards the stranger, which foreshadows his ambiguous relationships with the guerrillas he will mix with in India :

Willie was interested, even friendly. He liked the soft, smiling face. He was held by the flat cap. He liked the conspiratorial talk, the idea it carried of a world about to be astonished. But when the man began to talk of the great need for money, when his talk became insistent, Willie became worried, then frightened, and he began to back away from the restaurant window with the trapped, drowsy flies. And even while the man still appeared to smile there came from his soft lips a long and harsh and profound religious curse delivered in Tamil, which Willie still halfunderstood, at the end of which the man’s smile had gone and his face below the blue-checked golf cap had twisted into a terrible hate. [My emphasis] (4)

7The irrational interplay of emotions is characteristic of Willie’s attitude towards the guerrillas he will later meet in the teak forest. As the narrative progressively leads us into Willie’s focalisation we cannot help feeling puzzled by the swift change of mood which is conveyed through the blunt juxtaposition of clauses in a single sentence, thus enhancing the dramatic impact of this unexpected reversal. Such a surprising development is matched by the ambiguous expression on the man’s face, which appears to be both smiling and aggressive. Significantly, the syntax once again plays on deferment in order to highlight the drastic contrast between antithetical albeit coexisting feelings. Therefore Willie already seems to wade through unknown territory long before he has actually left Germany. This unknown territory, which the text fails to circumscribe geographically, is subsumed in the other’s gaze.

8As Willie follows his sister’s advice to join the underground movements composed of such men as the Tamil rose-seller, characterised by the “look of a man with a cause, the look of a man apart” (6), he enters a country where city names and train routes have become meaningless, where hotel names, meandering streets make no difference. As he recounts his past adventures, encompassing both his African experience in Half a Life and the beginning of his Indian journey, the enumeration of geographic landmarks highlights Willie’s sense of loss and despair :

From the desolation and real scarcities of a broken-down estate house in an abandoned Portuguese colony in Africa ; to the flat in Charlottenburg in Berlin which at first had seemed to him a place looted and bare and unkempt and cold, speaking of post-war neglect, and full of earlier ghosts he could scarcely imagine ; to the airport town in India, to the Riviera Hotel, to the Neo Anand Bhavan, to the guerrilla camp in the teak forest, and now this shock of the tanneries in a small town he didn’t know and wouldn’t be able to find on a map : separate chambers of experience and sensibility, each one a violation with which he in the end would live as though it was a complete world. [My emphasis] (58)

9This episode is situated half way through Willie’s revolutionary period, as he has been sent to the fictitious city of Dhulipur in order to be given a new job by headquarters. Dhulipur is the first Indian toponym given to the reader who naturally fails to find it “on a map”, just as Willie would. As in his preface, Naipaul resorts to one meandering sentence to convey Willie’s helplessness in his new surroundings, which echoes Willie’s puzzlement and incomprehension of the group he has joined. The syntax reverberates the disappearance of safe bearings, moving from a point of departure which already stands out as a defunct locus since the first part of the sentence plays on the enumeration of dysphoric syntagms which deny whatever safety and comfort the few precise geographic references might give to the reader. Willie does not so much define himself as coming from a precise place as from an abstract, all-encompassing realm of loss. This deliberate destruction of bearings is taken up in the description of Sarojini’s flat, which, far from being a shelter, stands as the place where Willie lies exposed to “earlier ghosts he could scarcely imagine”. Just as the preposition “from” pointed towards a mock origin, the preposition “to” points to a mock destination since Berlin only sends Willie back to his African memories. As the last part of the sentence unfolds, we realise that any sense of destination is progressively denied through the final elision of the preposition “to”: “and now” throws the reader into a violent reality in which Willie fails to situate himself as this is neither his aim nor his origin. And just as his hold on the outer world vanishes, the syntax fizzles out, leaving the reader in the expectancy of an absent main clause. This syntactic and logical disjunction runs parallel with Willie’s psychological dissociation from the various episodes of his past life which he subsumes under the expression “separate chambers of experience and sensibility”, thus referring the reader to the last words of the preface : “moving as it were from one sealed chamber of the spirit to another”. Eventually, we too feel trapped in a disjunctive reading in which analepses send us back to prolepses, juggling with these fictional “separate chambers [...] as though it was a complete world.” In this way, Naipaul not only allows his reader to sympathise with his hero, but also leaves him to experience the disquieting nature of otherness and of fictional creation.

  • 4 . As Michel Engel aptly remarked, Willie embodies a character who has been denied any knowledge on (...)

10Thus, the text appears to play on the narrow margin separating the poetics from the politics of aporia. The notion of aporia, both in its literal sense (the state of being at a loss) and in its philosophical implications, suggesting a puzzlement with no proffered solution, applies both to Naipaul’s writing and to Willie’s situation as a revolutionary who is only half-informed on the history of India, a country which he cannot even claim as his own4. Willie’s ignorance of political issues underlined by his sister Sarojini who reproaches him with hiding behind “the colonial psychosis” (2) and lectures him in the zoo-“I have to talk to you about history” (6)-only deepens once he has joined the guerrillas. Being led through unknown land into the forest and then back into a mysterious city to act as a courier, his role is that of the constant go-between on the move who is denied any overall knowledge of his action (73). Thus he is placed in the impossible situation of the guerrilla who’s been travelling through “unconnected landscapes” and who is nevertheless expected to make “the landscapes beg [in] to join up” (75).

  • 5 . Thus, we find many sentences coordinated by BUT, hinting at the slow destruction of the initially (...)

11Willie’s paradoxical position is reflected in the narrative structure, which symbolically chooses to show Willie’s first step in India through his initial encounter with Joseph. This is the character Sarojini mentioned to him as the “university lecturer [...] very much in the open” who “will pass [him] on” (25) if he likes him. Joseph, like Willie, is another half and half man, living in a city and in a flat that both look modern but are nevertheless undermined by decrepitude, hopelessness5. In such a context the description of the elevator taking Willie up to Joseph’s flat rings an ominous note :

The elevator shaft [...] didn’t come all the way down to ground level. It stopped perhaps three feet short, resting on pounded earth as on some rock formation in a cave ; and steps cut down into this pounded earth led down from the shaft. It might have been done like that for the style of the thing, or to save money ; or someone, the architect, the builder, or the shaft-manufacturer, might simply have mis-measured. But Willie thought, it is an elevator shaft nonetheless : that is how the people living in this block would see it. They would see themselves living in a new and rich area in a modern concrete block with an elevator. [My emphasis] (33-4)

  • 6 . “[...] he wished to practise whenever he could what he thought of as the new yoga of his day-to-d (...)

12For Willie, stepping into the lift already means stepping into alien territory as he slowly realises that his Western notions of what an elevator, or what the adjectives “new,” rich,” and “modern” stand for have become obsolete and meaningless. Through his free indirect speech the reader discovers how he learns to reinterpret this new reality by sweeping aside any objection he might have in order to espouse the other’s point of view. However, the highly modalised syntax suggests that the alien community Willie tries to be part of is an extremely vague, ill-defined one : just as he cannot decide why the elevator doesn’t “come all the way to ground level”, he cannot be sure of the inhabitants’ feelings towards it. This mental “yoga” Willie keeps practising in order to feel attuned to India6 is thus highly debatable since it does not truly enlighten him on the kind of reality he has to live with. Significantly, he cannot answer Joseph’s first question : “Do you like my university quarters ?” (34) Wishing not to “fall into the trap,” Willie returns the question : “It’s for you to tell me,” an apparently clever position-or so he thinks-which, however, only leads to silence. Having failed to pursue the dialogue with his host, Willie falls to analysing his environment and realises that “Joseph was an invalid” (35). But it is Willie and not Joseph who turns out to be the object of the other’s gaze as “Joseph, perhaps seeing the distress in Willie’s eyes, stood up again and showed himself to Willie” (35). Such a reversal not only proves that Willie’s attempt to hide his inner emotions and judgement has failed, but that his hold on the outside world is already a precarious one, long before he’s been admitted among the guerrillas. As a result, the reader is given a direct vision of Joseph’s handicap through the character’s direct speech :

He said, “It isn’t as bad as it looks. You see, I can stand up and move. But I can only move for about a hundred yards a day. That’s not a lot. So I have to ration myself, even here, in my university quarters. Of course, with a car and a chair it is possible to have something like a normal life. But you have seen our lift. [...] Something about my spinal cord. [...] Now they tell me that it can be cured, but then I will have no sense of balance. Every day I measure one against the other. [...]” (35)

13Joseph’s excruciating illness symbolically turns him into a paralysed dragoman, who is in charge with passing on guerrillas and organising the movement while he can hardly move. His rationed movements foreshadow Willie’s rationed food, money and freedom as he finds himself bound to the headquarters’ decisions. But more importantly, Joseph’s discourse highlights Willie’s misinterpretation of his surroundings since he certainly does not consider himself “living in a new and rich area in a modern concrete block with an elevator” worth the name. The reader is consequently led to distrust Willie and to realise that Joseph stands out as the epitome of the aporia he will have to live with. Similarly, Willie cannot act : he is carried away by the movement, abandoning himself “in their hands” (47); even though he does realise that he is “truly lost,” that his “only cause is to survive, to get out of this” (125), he fails to realise his plans for escape and merely follows Einstein, an elder guerrilla. Significantly, their escape is only referred to retrospectively and far from suggesting a new development, “this undoing of their life in the movement was like a continuation of that life” (148).

14Throughout his seven years spent with guerrillas in the teak forest, Willie is caught between movement and paralysis : the description of the military manœuvres qualified as “the boy-scout business of crawling on the ground with a gun” (54), the mock military theory which merely teaches them “to fire a gun at someone who can’t fire back” (55) or his job as a bagasse worker which exposes him to what he calls “human nullity” all appear as “sealed chamber [s]” (52) that fail to cohere and make sense. As his responsibilities increase, so does the atmosphere of unreality and all-encompassing madness culminating in the coolblooded murder of Raja, a new recruit from the weaver-caste later accused of treason, which leaves the reader as “pop-eyed” and awed as the victim’s brother :

And when the shot was fired, and Raja’s head became a mess, the elder brother’s eyes popped as he stared at the ground. That was how they left him, the elder brother, staring pop-eyed next to the homemade looms. (88)

15The factual narrative, by resorting to a temporal clause which suggests once more the retrospective viewpoint of the helpless, nonplussed gazer, emphasises the disquieting otherness of such a scene in which Willie is neither active, nor passive as he does not either pull the trigger or try to prevent the murder. Ironically, he will end up spending several years in jail for a crime he hasn’t committed and whose perpetrator has long since been dead :

He thought, “How unfair it is. Most of my time in the movement, in fact nearly all my time, was spent in idleness. I was horribly bored most of the time. [...] But the superintendent has quite another idea of my life as a guerrilla. He takes me twenty times more seriously than I took myself. He wouldn’t believe that things merely happened around me.” (155)

16Eventually, Willie, ever since his first encounter with Joseph, has never ceased being an onlooker, and a paralysed one at that. He’s spent his revolutionary life in India on the border of the movement, just as he had spent his African life, as he explained to Joseph : “Most of the time I saw Africa through the eyes of the colonists. They were the people I lived with. And then suddenly that life ended, Africa was all around us, and we all had to run.” (36)

17As a result, Willie’s attempt to follow Sarojini’s advice and find his own “war to go to” pitifully fails. His failure goes well beyond the failure of the movement itself, which drives Sarojini to write letters of selfreproach to her brother : “I will never forgive myself. [...] You were sent to the wrong people, and as it turned out, the other lot were not going to be much better. You were going to be snookered either way.” (158)

18Indeed, Sarojini’s own words allow us to surmise that Willie was doomed to be outplayed. Once again, just as in Africa, he’s been surrounded by an alien world he has failed to understand and amend, a world in which he has learnt to feel dissociated from his own self : “We can’t see our own strangeness. Though I have begun to feel my own” (134). As the mere toy of his own destiny, he ends up saving himself from jail unawares, through his literary reputation as “a pioneer of modern Indian writing” (174). Eventually his book appears as alien as his own self, “false stories [...] written in that time of darkness” (174).

  • 7 . The similarities between V. S. Naipaul’s biography and his heroes’have long since been noted ; we (...)
  • 8 . Asked by Harriett Gilbert if he shared Roger’s view or was “satirising him in some way”, V. S. Na (...)

19Beyond the metatextual irony of such a literary escape, in all senses of the word, V. S. Naipaul manages to convey, in the uncompromising portrayal of this anti-hero, the helplessness that characterises modern man’s position caught as he is amidst “internal forces that are beyond the control of any one man.” (176) In so doing, he reminds the reader once more of the ambiguous status of his novel which serves him to voice private concerns.7 Indeed, tackling the theme of the despised low castes in India, V. S. Naipaul, inevitably sends the reader to his own origins since we know that he was born in Trinidad to a family descended from immigrants from the north of India and that his own grandfather worked in a sugar cane plantation. Thus, this real and metaphorical return to the country of his ancestors places him, just as Willie, in a borderland position for this is neither his country nor can he truly feel as a foreigner there. Simultaneously, his life in England, where he arrived in 1950 after having been awarded a grant at Oxford, is both that of a British subject and of the eternal outsider constantly travelling to Asia, Africa and America. This ambiguous position is certainly not solved by his latest novel, which appears to criticise both the Indian movements attempting to unfetter the lower castes and the council estate system, a criticism he himself acknowledged in the course of his interviews8. Thus, having disparaged the revolutionary attempt at making the world any better through Willie’s experience, V. S Naipaul chooses Roger, a venal, adulterous middle-aged man to debunk the “ancillary council estates,”“their deliberate socialist ugliness,” describing them as “parasitic slave growths on the main body” (250-1). Such a criticism is voiced by a highly suspicious enunciator whose political grievances Willie listens to in bewilderment :

To Willie this talk of decline was a surprise. [.] He saw now that he had misread Roger. Roger had the highest idea of his country [.] Decline grieved him. Talking now to Willie about decline, with the view at the end of the sitting room, of the late-summer garden, tears came to his eyes. And Willie thought that those tears were really for his situation, that that was what he had been talking about. (244)

20The exposure of a self-pitying character whose distaste for and distrust towards the working-class is in fact caused by his aborted extra-marital love affairs is a highly humorous moment. As Roger expatiates on those “living on benefits” (246) and taking “a proper holiday” in “the Maldives, or Florida, or the bad sex-spots in Mexico” (246), the reader draws ironic parallels with Roger’s own relationships and descries, in his hatred for a social-class he feels cut from, his inability to come to terms with himself. Indeed, his attitude is set in sharp contrast against Willie’s, for the latter is able to consider with equal tenderness the Indian serf he meets at Joseph’s and Perdita, Roger’s wife. The “hunchbacked figure” (40) cleaning Joseph’s house, whose ghostly presence foreshadows the “matchstick people” (41) he will later meet in the forest, can be paralleled to Perdita’s “used-up body” which Willie contemplates after lovemaking : “And he became full of pity for Perdita, always withdrawn, always cooperative, her head on its side. [.] He thought, ‘I must never forget the Perditas. London would be full of them. I must never neglect the neglected. [.]’” (192). Obviously, Roger’s discourse is an irrevocably scornful backlash against this alien world he has failed to understand, against his own incapacity at making Marian, his council estate lover, happy. As he finishes his story, he acknowledges the hatred that has biased his perception of the world :

I never wanted to die full of hate and rage, like my father. I wanted to go like Van Gogh, as I have told you. Smoking my pipe, or doing the equivalent of that. Contemplating my art, or my life, since I have no art, and feeling hatred for no one.
I wonder if I’ll have the courage or the strength of the great man. Already, I begin to feel, as yet in a small way, the great solace of hate. (282)

  • 9 . Van Gogh’s Chair, 1888. Oil on canvas, 91. 8 x 73 cm. Van Gogh, Vincent, 1853-1890. NG3862. Bough (...)

21Roger’s reference to Van Gogh is a highly perplexing one for we all know that Van Gogh, far from dying serenely, shot himself after having been afflicted with increasingly recurrent periods of mental illness. Yet, Roger’s mistake, as he confuses the artist and the man, thus wrongly associating his death to the tranquil, intimate atmosphere of the famous Van Gogh’s chair9, endears him to the reader who suddenly realises his hunger for an unachieved wholeness. As is often the case with Naipaul’s humorous characters, they make us smile but do not allow us to grin complacently : just as Willie learns not to “neglect the neglected”, the reader discovers the suffering side of Roger’s humanity which makes him both long for the idealised fate of a distressed, impoverished painter, and fear what he thinks looks “like Dickens’s England” (246).

22Eventually, the novel suggests the systematic deconstruction of the socialist ideal, whether abroad or’at home’: just as the revolution is interpreted as a “strange chamber” (52) cutting people from one and another and from themselves, a movement that “is not a movement of love” (105), council housing is seen as a symbolic architectural failure that belies a similar fault : “They have a deliberate socialist ugliness, a conscious suppression of those ideas of beauty and humanity that rise naturally from the heart” (250). To Roger, and certainly to V. S. Naipaul, aesthetic failure betrays the failure of the heart. It is precisely the kind of failure Willie tries to overcome. Significantly, his self-liberation coincides with his renewed architectural vision of London :

He saw it all, all the separate buildings, as things made by men, made by many men at different times. [...] He stood unburdened before the buildings many different men had built. He went from place to place [...] everywhere seeing the little miracle happen, feeling the oppression lift, and feeling himself made anew. (196)

23Later on, it is no wonder that Willie should be enthralled by his architecture lectures at the training centre in Barnet. As he learns about window tax and tax on brick in England, he progressively links the English townscape to the Indian one, as well as to his experience of village huts in Africa. Architecture consequently becomes a metaphor for the balanced, aesthetic construction of a meaningful vision encompassing the past, the present and the future. For a building tells us about its past, its present function and its possible future, it stands as a constant challenge to erosion and fall and remains standing as a living memorial to the men and the epoch which saw it rise. The end of the civilised world is thus equated with “a kind of architectural terror [in which] concrete and steel buildings all over the world might with no external prompting start collapsing in the order in which they had been put up” (228). As early as A House for Mr Biswas, the architectural motif has been a significant symbol in Naipaul’s writing. Magic Seeds unexpectedly takes up the theme in a narrative which, beyond the deconstruction of the socialist ideal, tells us about human construction, about the architecture rising from the artist’s soul and empowering him with a renewed vision of the world and of himself.

24Such a strategy suggests that man is saved through himself, and particularly through what he has been able to create. This is why Naipaul is so critical of poor or deceitful creations, be they architectural or not. Thus, we may notice that the deconstruction of the revolutionary movements is mostly achieved through the debunking of their circular discourse : during meetings held in the forest guerrillas “repeat things” (106), trying “to add passion to what they had said before” (107); once in prison, the “routine” is repeated in the political cells where inmates keep “studying the texts of Mao and Lenin [.] people saying what they felt they had to say about the peasantry and the proletariat and the revolution” (163). Ironically, the guerrillas themselves point out the self-revolving, self-defeating nature of their discourse : “We really should stop talking about the liberated areas. We tell people in the universities that the forest is a liberated area, and we tell people in the forest that the universities are a liberated area. Unlikely things happen : these people sometimes meet” (141-2). This “sterile” process is reverberated in the prose which conveys a dichotomous, simplified vision. Thus, we may remember Willie’s first visit to Raja, the scooter man who will be shot for treason later on :

The scooter’s man scooter was in his front yard, next to the spinning wheel. He lived with his brother and his brother’s family and the house was larger than average. The two bedrooms were on the left, the rooms with the looms were on the right. The rooms were no more than ten or twelve feet deep, so that you were hardly in the house when you were out of it. At the back of the house on one side was the open kitchen and a large basket with corn-cobs, bought for fuel. On the other side was the outhouse. Some richer person’s field came right up to the plot, right up to where the scooter man’s brother had planted a fine-leaved tree [...] which in a couple of seasons would be cut down and used as fuel. [My emphasis] (82-3)

25The circular structure of the description plays on the repetition of nouns as well as on syntactic and phonetic echoes : the coordination or the juxtaposition of simple clauses allows the reader to hear even more forcefully the chiming of one syllable words-room/loom, feet/deep, leaved/tree-as his gaze is oriented in a circular movement which takes him inside and outside, to the left and to the right, in the present and in the future. As a result, Willie’s vision is as self-enclosed as the rotation of the spinning looms, which will symbolically preside to Raja’s murder further on. Thus, the text is fraught with a dramatic irony that induces the reader both to grasp the revolutionary factual outlook on the reality of Indian lower castes and to sense, along with Willie, the impossibility to ignore the other human, intimate reality of those people. The narrative, resorting both to internal focalisation and to discrete puns, emphasises Willie’s distress as he feels torn between his revolutionary allegiance and his sympathy for the human beings he encounters : “Willie was unwilling to work out the living arrangements of the house. He imagined there would be [...] And he understood how [...] Willie was moved to notice [...]”[ My emphasis] (83). As always in Magic Seeds, Naipaul’s critical stance never takes us far from away from compassion as Willie cannot help interpreting and sharing other people’s feelings. Out of the ruthless criticism of the “mimicry of old-fashioned social life,” of “the fiction of successful revolution,” of a movement which is “becoming more and more a matter of these abstract words” (140), Naipaul is eager to show that his distrust towards the revolution does not entail indifference towards the oppressed. As Willie significantly puts it the last letter he writes to Sarojini from his Indian jail :

I am surrounded here by a kind of distress I don’t know how to deal with, but the ashram is not the way. Nor was that foolish war which I went to fight. [...] Our ideas and words were more important than their lives and their ambitions for themselves. [...] if you see them from a distance, as I still see them, although I am close to them night and day, you would be moved by the workings of the human soul, so complete within those frail bodies. [...] You can’t take a gun and kill that unhappiness. All you can do is kill people. (167)

  • 10 . The story book does not appear as a tremendously original piece of work in Half a Life but as a s (...)

26Admitting that no single action can save the oppressed, Willie goes back to England having lost “that vanity” (176) which had initially led him to believe he might alter the course of Indian history. The magic seeds sown by the revolution were not those Willie expected : far from freeing the peasantry, he has discovered that words can be valueless, even harmful, a paradox which appears all the more striking as Willie is a writer, although he does not consider himself as such. Indeed, as he starts on his journey “back to that old way of seeing” (27) in order to understand India he decides to shed both his Western outlook and literary horizon by taking only maths books with him, which prove to be unreadable. This is his first step into the arbitrary world of dogmas that will be thrust at him. Only after having left India will he be able to read again. “The book of stories” (173) he wrote in London, and which seems “like another life” to him while he is still in jail, awakens him to a new world of thoughts and emotions. His nervousness at “encountering his old self” (188) when he rereads it in Roger’s home, his thrill as he feels “transported as if by some kind of time-travelling magic” into the past do not spring from selfish pride. The “magic” is not so much due to his own talents-we know little about the actual stories and have to resort to our memories of Half a Life10 to recognise this “anxiety always below everything” (188)-as to the visionary experience to which it gives birth when looking at himself and at others “from a distance”. Just as in Half a life, where his first experience as a writer was that of a renewed vision-“It gave him a new way of looking at his family and his life” (102)-Willie’s experience amounts to a renewed, inner reading of himself. As a writer and as a reader of his own stories he appears to act in a much more masterly and mature way : “He would have said, if he had been asked, that he had always been the same person. But it was another person who looked as from a great distance at his older self” (188). Quite explicitly, this new vision corresponds to a reassessment of his own life and of his past selves enabling him to formulate “an idea of the man he had become” (188). This idea remains a precarious one, which Willie can never circumscribe completely, i. e. which remains fully open to the other :

[...] he felt he was being given some idea, elusive, impossible to grasp, yet real. What his essence was he still didn’t know [...] All that he knew was that he was a free man-in every way-and had a new strength. [...] “[...] Now I don’t have to join anybody. Now I can celebrate what I am, or what I have become” (196).

27This freedom determines his openness to the other ; the imprecise, yet acutely real self he has just realised paves the way for a reinterpretation of the outer reality.

28Thus, it should come as no surprise that Willie’s reflection on his revolutionary past could only be voiced once he’s back in England, with hindsight :

But in the forest and in the jail I changed. You can’t go through that kind of life without changing. I have shed my materialist self. I had to, to survive. I feel that these people don’t know the other side of things. [...] The people here don’t understand nullity. The physical nullity of what I saw in the forest. The spiritual nullity that went with that [...] Unless we understand people’s other side, Indian, Japanese, African, we cannot truly understand them. (210-211)

  • 11 . “Interview with the 2001 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Sir V. S. Naipaul”, December 12, 2001 ; in (...)

29It seems that Willie, just as Naipaul, might be heard to say “the great, great problem for me just beginning was to find out what kind of person I was.”11 And, just as Naipaul who confessed “I learnt distance in writing”, Willie learns distance in reading. In other words, the experience of dispossession, particularly self-dispossession, is crucial to the acceptance and understanding of the other and to Willie’s further development as an artist. Significantly, just as Willie starts realising that distance is needed to grasp the other’s reality-distance from the other and distance from the self-and symbolically moves to Barnet, North London “out of central casting” (223), he proves better at grasping his surroundings. Thus Roger is no longer “the vanished man, the man Willie remembered” and whom he failed to recognise at the airport (177) but the narrator he listens to and reports.

30Eventually, we realise that Roger’s story resembles that of Willie’s father in Half a Life. Just as Half a Life started on the report of the father’s story, a story which “took a long time [...] changed as Willie grew up”, in which “things were added” (1), the third part of Magic Seeds throws us into a narrative which necessarily results from Willie’s recapturing of loose, disconnected threads :

[...] Roger began to talk to Willie [.] He did it over many days, adding words and thoughts to what had gone before ; what he said wasn’t always in sequence. He began indirectly, led to his main subject by scattered observations [.]. (243)

  • 12 . This method is used again in the course of chapter 11, p. 258, where we find the mention “(Roger (...)

31The structure of the narrative mirrors its content : this introduction to Roger’s story-just as that of the heterodiegetic narrator’s at the beginning of chapter one-is in fact a false start, enabling Willie to introduce the main themes of Roger’s story (socialism, high taxes, family ties) before the story proper begins, preceded by “And this, when all the pieces were put together, was the story Roger told” (248). Roger’s story comprises the penultimate chapter throughout which we only hear Roger’s voice, as indicated by the brackets in the first sentence which reassert the necessary “distance” between the teller and the listener : “MY FATHER WAS ILL (Roger said)” (249)12. Once again, the reader cannot fail to recognise the first chapter of Half a Life in which Willie reports his father’s words : “THE WRITER (Willie Chandran’s father said) came to India [...]” (1). The first words of the last chapter of the novel retrospectively reassert the fragmentary nature of Roger’s story : “THAT WAS THE story Roger told, in bits, not in sequence, and over many weeks” (283). Once again, Willie is placed in the position of the listener/interpreter/reporter of a story which is not his but which he nevertheless presents as a coherent whole. The recurring references to the storyteller’s lack of organisation induce the reader to see it as a mise en abyme of the whole narrative of Magic Seeds. Therefore, we may feel entitled to remember Roger’s theories on story telling in Half a Life and to sense a deliberate, controlled disorder. Indeed, having read Willie’s first stories, Roger remarks in Half a Life : “Life doesn’t have a neat beginning and a tidy end. Life is always going on. You should begin in the middle and end in the middle, and it should all be there.” (83) When one looks into Roger’s story, one is forced to realise that it follows a chronological pattern, moving from Roger’s first extra-marital affair with Joe, to his seduction of Marian, Joe’s friend, and their final break up. Yet, this linear narrative reveals a circular pattern which takes the reader/listener from the time of Roger’s father’s slowly approaching death (“My father was ill [...] Not yet close to dying”, 249) to Roger’s anticipation of his own death : “I never wanted to die full of hate and rage, like my father” (282). True to Roger’s advice, the narrative hangs suspended “in the middle”, starting at a time which corresponds neither to a beginning nor to an ending, leaving the reader to wonder about the actual end. And as enunciative markers slowly disappear, we are inclined to believe that Willie himself has become the storyteller, for who better than Willie could enter his friend’s focalisation ? We recognise here the narrative technique of Half a Life deftly analysed by Florence Labaune-Demeule :

  • 13 . “V. S Naipaul’s Half a Life : Moving Away from Tension ?”, V. S. Naipaul : A World in Tension, 14 (...)

The use of both first- and third-person narrations could be seen as a way of handling the reader’s feelings of distance or empathy towards Willie, thus maintaining the reader’s in between position in the novel. [...] At the end of the story, the third-person narrative voice reappears, with the same characteristics as before : it is an unintrusive, distant voice [...] the point of view is general, summing things up or melting the different pieces of knowledge obtained at different moments [...] Who but Willie Chandran would occupy such a privileged position in time ? [...] Who but the only witness, the only person it was aimed at ?13

32Eventually, narrative boundaries are destroyed and we are led to empathise both with Roger and Willie as the latter finally attains self- discovery through the faithful recollection of his friends’words and feelings. This deconstruction of narrative frontiers goes hand in hand with that of racial or dogmatic ones, as evinced in the comical wedding of Marcus’s children. As Willie explains in one of his unsent letters to Sarojini, Marcus is a West Indian African who “developed one ambition (apart of course from making a lot of money), and this was to have sex only with white women and then one day to have a white grandchild. He has succeeded in both things” (285). Roger and Willie, who’ve been invited to the wedding of Lyndhurst, Marcus’s “half-English son,” and “a pure-white aristocratic lady” (285), leave the reception before the end of the celebration, retreating to their hotel where the strains of the band’s music merge into their dreams. Thus, this final chapter is neither a beginning nor an end : from a narrative point of view, the story of the wedding is left unachieved ; likewise, Marcus’s desire to prove that the black gene is a recessive one and to walk hand in hand with his white grandchild may have turned real but naturally leaves in its wake unsolved issues. The whole setting is left to indeterminacy : a house described as “an established ruin” (287) and a luxuriant garden growing to seeds, a sort of “vegetable nature [...] seemingly human, disassembling itself” (289). The reader is thus left with the organic architecture of a reality which can have no “neat beginning” or “tidy end,” a reality which is true to life. Symbolically, although Willie finds his way through the meshes of Roger’s story, falling serenely asleep to the memory of a reconciled past, he cannot find the strength to write to Sarojini. The repeatedly rewritten, crossed out and abandoned letters exemplify his incapacity and his unwillingness to reorder his vision according to a definite ideal which would leave no room for the free play of interrelated visions that define his true self :

“It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That’s where the mischief starts. That’s where everything starts unravelling. But I can’t write to Sarojini about that.” (294)

33Such a final warning explicitly suggests that Willie prefers the perplexing, thought-provoking ravel of fiction to the unravelling of political dogma. Placed at a crossroads, halfway between India and England, the hero-reader-writer of the story has learnt to distrust borders, whether political, social or intellectual. Instead of the coarse lines of ideology he chooses the hazy, elusive paths of chance encounters which turn him into a listener, a borderland actor, crossing over to other lives, and capable at last of hearing his own poetic voice. Ultimately, V. S. Naipaul’s distant, yet infinitely close approach of his subjects, the semi-comical, semi-tender rendering of his characters’ longings, the disjunctive time frame, the ever-moving horizons spur the reader into a most disquieting and enriching quest for “the other side of things.”

34With very special thanks to Anne Beauvallet and Éric Doumerc


1 . Naipaul, V. S. Magic Seeds. London : Picador, 2004, 210. All further references to Magic Seeds quoted between brackets in the text come from this edition.

2 . Adams, Tim. Tuesday September 14, 2004, The Observer.

3 . Naipaul, V. S. Half a Life. London : Picador, 2001.

4 . As Michel Engel aptly remarked, Willie embodies a character who has been denied any knowledge on his own history. Displacement thus becomes necessary to the discovery of one’s past and of one’s nation. Indeed, the Barbadian novelist and critic George Lamming has already described in his collection of essays The Pleasures of the Exile (1960) how most West-Indians discovered their “west-indian-ness” abroad : “It is there that one sees a discovery actually taking place. No Barbadian, no Trinidadian, so St Lucian, no islander from the West Indies sees himself as West Indian until he encounters another islander in foreign territory. [...] In this sense most West Indians of my generation were born in England.”

5 . Thus, we find many sentences coordinated by BUT, hinting at the slow destruction of the initially positive image, such as in : “The town in which Joseph lived was big, but it was without a metropolitan feel. The road outside the station was a mess, with a lot of urgent shouting and excitement but very little movement.” (31)

6 . “[...] he wished to practise whenever he could what he thought of as the new yoga of his day-to-day living, in which every act and every need was to be worked out again, reduced to what was most basic” (43).

7 . The similarities between V. S. Naipaul’s biography and his heroes’have long since been noted ; we may remember Beena Anand’s comment on A House for Mr Biswas as she points out : “Many of his protagonists are writers. As he depicts them composing their narratives, he discloses how the authorial self begets itself, in the creation of his fictitious progeny. [...] Naipaul’s writing deals with states of dislocation and cultural intermixtures both of his protagonists and the colonised countries they inhabit and all the more acutely the problems of an outsider, borrowing on his own experiences, that of a translated man, at first an Indian in the West Indies, and then a West Indian in England-a roving intellectual lost in a postcolonial world,” “Entrapment and Release in A House for Mr Biswas,” V. S. Naipaul : A World in Tension, Judith Misrahi-Barak ed., Université Montpellier III, 2004, 34-6.

8 . Asked by Harriett Gilbert if he shared Roger’s view or was “satirising him in some way”, V. S. Naipaul answered : “No I’m not satirising him. It’s actually based on observation that idea, council estate culture. The ancillary aspect of every British city now is the council estate. Something said in the book that ancilla, means a maid, means a slave girl, and so these ancillary housing estates are a slave growth, they’re parasitic growths on the main body, the active body. I am willing to defend what I think. That’s what I’ve seen. [.] one has to notice the council estate life, one has to pay attention to it, one can’t just ignore it. It is taking up more and more of the country’s wealth, it will take up more and more and more and there is nothing coming back in return.” BBC World Service’s The Word, 23. 09. 2004.

9 . Van Gogh’s Chair, 1888. Oil on canvas, 91. 8 x 73 cm. Van Gogh, Vincent, 1853-1890. NG3862. Bought by the Trustees of the Courtauld Fund, 1924 ; returned to the National Gallery from the Tate Gallery, 1961. Interestingly, Van Gogh’s Chair is the counterpart to another painting, a kind of halved portrait of his life with Gauguin since this work was painted while Van Gogh was working in the company of Gauguin at Arles. It was retouched early in 1889. Van Gogh painted a companion picture of Gauguin’s armchair, shown by night, now in the Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam. The two paintings may have been intended to represent the contrasting temperaments and interests of the two artists.

10 . The story book does not appear as a tremendously original piece of work in Half a Life but as a spontaneous flow over which Willie has little control : “The story, growing under his hand, took Willie by surprise. [...] The stories seemed to be just waiting for him [...] The writing then began to lead him to difficult things, things he couldn’t face, and he stopped”. (102)

11 . “Interview with the 2001 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Sir V. S. Naipaul”, December 12, 2001 ; interviewer is Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy. http ://

12 . This method is used again in the course of chapter 11, p. 258, where we find the mention “(Roger said)”.

13 . “V. S Naipaul’s Half a Life : Moving Away from Tension ?”, V. S. Naipaul : A World in Tension, 148-149.

© Presses universitaires de Paris Nanterre, 2008

Conditions d’utilisation :


Volume papier