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Magic Seeds [Hardcover]

V.S. Naipaul
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Nov. 16 2004
A stunning novel of the present moment that takes us into the hearts and minds of those who use terrorism as an ideal and a way of life, and those who aspire to the frightening power of wealth.

Abandoning a life he felt was not his own, Willie Chandran (the hero of Half a Life) moves to Berlin where his sister’s radical political awakening inspires him to join a liberation movement in India. There, in the jungles and dirt-poor small villages, through months of secrecy and night marches, Willie — a solitary, inward man — discovers both the idealism and brutality of guerilla warfare. When he finally escapes the movement, he is imprisoned for the murder of three policemen. Released unexpectedly on condition he return to England, he attempts to climb back into life in the West, but his experience of wealth, love and despair in London only bedevils him further.

Magic Seeds is a moving tale of a man searching for his life and fearing he has wasted it, and a testing study of the conflicts between the rich and the poor, and the struggles within each. Its spare, elegant prose sizzles with devastating psychological analysis, bleak humour and astonishing characters. Only V. S. Naipaul could have written a novel so attuned to the world and so much a challenge to it.

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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. At the end of Half a Life, Naipaul's previous novel, Willie, a young Indian in late 1950s London, travels to Africa. At the beginning of his new novel, Willie is in Berlin with his bossy sister, Sarojini. It is 18 years later. Revolution has uprooted Willie's African existence. Sarojini hooks him up with a guerrilla group in India, and Willie, always ready to be molded to some cause, returns to India. The guerrillas, Willie soon learns, are "absolute maniacs." But caught up, as ever, in the energy of others, Willie stays with them for seven years. He then surrenders and is tossed into the relative comfort of jail. When an old London friend (a lawyer named Roger) gets Willie's book of short stories republished, Willie's imprisonment becomes an embarrassment to the authorities. He is now seen as a forerunner of "postcolonial writing." He returns to London, where he alternates between making love to Perdita, Roger's wife, and looking for a job. One opens up on the staff of an architecture magazine funded by a rich banker (who is also cuckolding Roger). Willie's continual betweenness—a state that makes him, to the guerrillas, a man "who looks at home everywhere"—is the core theme of this novel, and the story is merely the shadow projected by that theme. Sometimes, especially toward the end of the book, as Willie's story becomes more suburban, there is a penumbral sketchiness to the incidents. At one point, Willie, remarking on the rich London set into which he has been flung, thinks: "These people here don't understand nullity." Naipaul does—he is a modern master of the multiple ironies of resentment, the claustrophobia of the margins. In a world in which terrorism continually haunts the headlines, Naipaul's work is indispensable.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* This is a novel about war. It doesn't feature traditional pitched battles between the forces of declared belligerent nations; rather, it's about underground revolutionary movements that fight--ambush, really--police and civilians. This latest work by the beloved Nobel laureate is a sequel to Half a Life (2000), which introduced the character of Willie Chandran, an Indian, a son of a Brahmin and a low-caste woman, whose participation in secret revolutionary programs in various locales over the years has been more about his search for purpose, identity, and control over his own destiny than about aiding other people's struggles against oppression. Naipaul's new novel, then, is a continuation of Willie's experiences, first in India and then upon his return to England, where he lived 30 years before. Naipaul's elaborately constructed novel is an anatomy of revolution but in its clandestine, guerilla "format." It is Naipaul's genius to individualize the abstract, in this case giving the concept of perpetual, worldwide fights against political tyranny and social inequality a deeply sculpted face--Willie's--and through him, offering a richly imagined example of what drives the revolutionary. But, ultimately, the novel reaches its full depth in tracking Willie's disillusion, as he is left, after all his attempts to grasp onto an idealized vision of society, to face the reality of what it is people truly want and need. We expect brilliant thought and sensitive artistry from Naipaul, and once again, we are not disappointed. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Look before You Leap! July 15 2006
By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
Magic Seeds is the sequel to V.S. Naipaul's powerful novel, Half a Life. If you have not yet read that book, I strongly urge you to do so before you read this one. Otherwise, you will feel like Scotty beamed you up into a seat of an airplane on its way somewhere without any warning.

In Half a Life, Willie Chandran left his native India to pursue his education in England and found himself to be miserable there. With a little notoriety from his writing, he attracts the attention of a wealthy wife and moves to Africa where he lives an indolent life. In that book, Willie is established as someone too passive to seize on his own desires . . . and leads a shadow-like existence that doesn't please him.

In Magic Seeds, Willie has left Africa and finds himself as a temporary visitor in Berlin with his radicalized sister who wants him to return to India as a guerrilla fighter. While there, he realizes that revolutionary warfare is often more about the power lust of the revolutionaries than any potential benefit to those who they are supposed to be liberating. The resulting story is a scathing indictment of leftist revolutionary movements. After many years in the field, Willie turns himself in and is imprisoned. There, he finds that escaping the revolutionaries is almost as hard as ever . . . and his life still suffers from being too passive in the face of the resolve of others.

Unexpectedly released from prison, Willie returns to England and encounters the modern "civilized" world and finds it wanting as well. But Willie has started to grow up at last and begins to seize on initiative to get what he wants . . . and to learn from those who have been too greedy at following their impulses and ideologies.
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By Kriss
Format:Paperback
Trying to read this book of Naipaul becomes trying experience for one, even before one is half way through it; particularly when one is also reading `A house for Mr. Biswas' for the third time; and had recently, temporarily, abandoned `Guerrillas' - finding it a bit convoluted and unintelligible.

Of all `A house for Mr. Biswas' appears most convincing even in the third reading, with Mr. Biswas amusing one by his limited vision of his world that he is intellectually unable to grasp and is reminded of his pettiness by the diverse world he sees around. But he has the delusions of grandeur as well, that got reflected in the language he uses to write his headlines in, for the articles he publishes in the newspaper he is working for. But he has the security of his bullying but also forgiving in-laws, who always give him the shelter and food, when he returns to their crowded abode defeated by the world, along with his wife and four children. But he is not grateful for their kindness and is resentful of it; and hides in the cocoon of his defensive thoughts and emotions in secrecy, apparently mocking everything and everyone around. The house that finally Mr. Biswas buys; that looks fine but has deep flaws; after taking loans on top of all the saving of his life; he considers it as a fort in defense against his in laws and the rest of the world; for which his children would pay back when they start earning. Sadly, burnt out by a life of poverty and malice, Mr. Biswas does not live long to enjoy the freedom and independence his house provided him, and died when his grown up son and daughter are away, who might have helped him most at that stage.

`Magic seeds' brings into light this inchoate vision of grandeur of Mr.
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Look before You Leap! April 28 2005
By Donald Mitchell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Magic Seeds is the sequel to V.S. Naipaul's powerful novel, Half a Life. If you have not yet read that book, I strongly urge you to do so before you read this one. Otherwise, you will feel like Scotty beamed you up into a seat of an airplane on its way somewhere without any warning.

In Half a Life, Willie Chandran left his native India to pursue his education in England and found himself to be miserable there. With a little notoriety from his writing, he attracts the attention of a wealthy wife and moves to Africa where he lives an indolent life. In that book, Willie is established as someone too passive to seize on his own desires . . . and leads a shadow-like existence that doesn't please him.

In Magic Seeds, Willie has left Africa and finds himself as a temporary visitor in Berlin with his radicalized sister who wants him to return to India as a guerrilla fighter. While there, he realizes that revolutionary warfare is often more about the power lust of the revolutionaries than any potential benefit to those who they are supposed to be liberating. The resulting story is a scathing indictment of leftist revolutionary movements. After many years in the field, Willie turns himself in and is imprisoned. There, he finds that escaping the revolutionaries is almost as hard as ever . . . and his life still suffers from being too passive in the face of the resolve of others.

Unexpectedly released from prison, Willie returns to England and encounters the modern "civilized" world and finds it wanting as well. But Willie has started to grow up at last and begins to seize on initiative to get what he wants . . . and to learn from those who have been too greedy at following their impulses and ideologies. He even begins to see that there are times when being passive can be rewarding, and he begins to use passivity as a strategy to gain his ends. You also find out what happened to many of the characters who influence Willie in Half a Life.

The book's main weakness is that Mr. Naipaul is obsessed with the idea that people shouldn't be so easily swayed by others into making life-changing decisions based on limited information and spurious logic. They are looking for magic seeds that will lead them up Jack's beanstalk to slay a giant and gather up a hen that lays golden eggs. That's a silly search. There are no magic seeds. That theme is repeated and developed from every possible angle. The message overweighs the story so that this becomes more like a philosophical novel rather than a story-telling novel.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Seeds Appear Not to Be Sown in Naipaul's Misbegotten Novel Dec 11 2004
By Ed Uyeshima - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The title of V.S. Naipaul's new novel refers to the beginning of the revolution by the guerilla fighters his main character, Wllie Chandran, meets in India. It also seems to refer to the magic seeds that can produce a raceless society through miscegenation. In either case, the story does not hold up as intriguing as it could have been, as Naipaul inexplicably makes Willie a passive observer of the life around him.

I had never read Naipaul's previous novel about Willie, "Half a Life", so I assume I am at a disadvantage to appreciate the scope of his development as presented in this book. But I have to fault the author for not providing more of a backstory to lure me into his rather exotic plot, which takes Willie to Berlin to be with his radical sister after escaping both his wife and a colonial rebellion in Africa. His sister pushes him to go to India to join the Maoist guerillas. But through a series of misadventures, he ends up with the wrong guerrillas and stays with this band of misfits for seven years. Willie becomes a revolutionary participating in crimes that terrorize the countryside the group claims to represent. The best portion of the book takes place in India, where he is paired individually with each guerilla, who in turn tells the tale of how that person became a guerilla. Through this literary technique, no matter how contrived it gets, we get completely unique pictures of India. In a moment of epiphany after turning himself to the police, Willie spends some time in jail where Naipaul's vivid descriptions of the different castes of prisoners reveals much about Indian society as a whole. Willie then goes to England, where apparently in Naipaul's previous stories, he went to school. In London, his friend Roger shows up and tells of how he met and lost his mistress. Naipaul makes this character more interesting than he should be after all that Willie has been through, but the author does evoke the predicament of a stateless person with great empathy.

Naipaul has led such a full life that I wish I could unconditionally recommend his novel for the experiences he shares. But on the whole, he has written an episodic polemic about the racial and ethnic fates we all face in spite of our best efforts to escape them. An interesting main character would have helped, as Willie here seems to serve as just the tape by which the other characters adhere together to tell their background stories. None of the stories appear to inform the character into a greater sense of self-awareness. For instance, the character's eventual views of England seem befitting of an old man ensconced in late-life irritability, rather than a man who came to realize the guerillas' base arguments were against his greater sensibilities. At the end of the story, Willie has just turned 60 and yet is still crashing at his friends' homes. Forty years seems like a ludicrous amount of time for self-exploration after college. Like Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons", this book has flourishes of great prose and some fascinating characters, but ultimately it is disappointing for the obvious disconnect of the main character from the author and the world that you would think would have been shaping both perspectives.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The continuing story of Willie Chandran moves to war zone Dec 6 2004
By mallard - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Though he has won the Nobel Prize in literature, V.S. Nai paul has been criticized for rewriting the same story many times in more than a dozen novels. Naipaul's fiction often revolves around characters who lurch from place to place, searching for an identity that exists only in their imaginations.

"Magic Seeds" is this kind of novel, but it also demonstrates Naipaul's keen ability to explore human action and its motivation. Here, Naipaul returns to Willie Chandran, the central character in his 2001 novel, "Half a Life." As a cultural drifter, Willie easily fits into the strand of characters populating Naipaul's work.

In "Half a Life," he moves from India to London and finally to Africa in the late 1950s, where he marries a Portuguese woman and appears to settle. "Magic Seeds" jumps ahead 18 years to Berlin, where Willie, six months after leaving his wife, now lives "in a temporary, half-and-half way" with his sister Sarojini, experiencing the listlessness that has plagued him since his youth.

Willie's problem, as he sees it, is that he has always been "someone on the outside" for whom "time passes fruitlessly by." He garners little sympathy from Sarojini, who berates him with diatribes condemning his "colonial psychosis." She views Willie as a privileged man who has deliberately avoided taking on a meaningful life as a revolutionary.

According to Sarojini, Willie should have participated in a "glorious war" of revolution as an inhabitant of both India and Africa during times of upheaval.

"We all have wars to go to," she says, arguing that fighting to help people who are slaves in their own land should be viewed as an obligation.

Spurred by her criticism and the expiration of his visa, Willie joins a revolutionary group in India, sparking the most engaging part of "Magic Seeds." Willie's placement with communist guerillas is absurd, but it provides a window into the mind-sets of revolutionaries who could easily be described as terrorists, depending upon the observer's perspective.

In the post-Sept. 11 world, Willie's experiences here are significant. At first, he sees the revolutionaries as people unwilling to let go of old ideas about home and country. But as he lives and fights with them, he notices that some guerillas experience the same displacement as Willy, finding in their futile war a sense of purpose. Others are motivated by things as inane as sexual frustration, or as significant as childhood beatings or lifelong suffering due to the machinations of the upper classes.

Eventually, Willie is captured and thrown into jail, where the prison routine provides relief from life as a jungle fighter. From there, with comical luck, Naipaul shifts Willie to England, where he restarts his disengaged life working for an architectural magazine. His guerrilla experiences have jaundiced his view of the society in which he once maintained a static existence. By novel's end, Willie progresses toward finding himself at home in the world.

"Magic Seeds" occupies an identifiable place in Naipaul's philosophy, and those who generally enjoy his work will like what's here. Readers unfamiliar with his work have much to gain as well, though Naipaul's style can feel disengaged from reality. Conversations are heavily one-sided, characters are constantly in a mode of self-reflection, and as the second half of the novel progresses, the events in "Magic Seeds" have a fleeting, episodic quality.

Despite Naipaul's heavy-handed ways, his precise art offers something revelatory about society - even if he has revealed it before.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing work by a literary master Feb. 3 2005
By Keith Nichols - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Willie Chandran, whom we met in "Half a Life" has, after 18 years, left his wife's farm in Africa and is now living with his married sister in Berlin. Willie still has not figured out what to do with his life, although he is now in his 40s. As we have learned, Willie comes from a family that has no marketable skills and subsists on the charity of others. Willie's sister convinces him that journeying to India to aid a certain band of revolutionaries is the thing for him to do. However, he seems to find his way to the wrong band of revolutionaries. But since there seems little to choose among these groups, he sticks it out and manages to survive in the forests and in prison for seven years. Then it's back to Berlin and rather shortly to London, where he moves in with an old friend and eventually acquires, through the friend's influence, a low-level position with an architectural magazine. At the end of the novel, Willie has about managed to talk himself out of pursuing his newfound interest in becoming an architect, owing to his age, which is now 52.

Naipaul's genius is in making Willie and his cast of friends and relatives complex enough that their situations elicit our sympathy and hold our interest. Unexpectedly, the strongest chapters in the book may be the last ones, which present the friend's condemnation of the deterioration of English life owing to the disappearance of the serving classes and to the sort of irresponsible council-estate existence perpetuated by the social-welfare state.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The second half of a great novel Aug. 29 2006
By Joel Jacobsen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The title of "Half a Life" had a second meaning that became clear only after "Magic Seeds" was published. The latter isn't a sequel - it's the second half of the former.

There are many wonderful things about the combination novel, beginning with the almost magically concise style Naipaul has mastered, or more properly has invented. There are ironies within ironies, as in the comic parallels between the personal and sexual disappointments that drive Indian guerillas into the woods and drive the character of Roger into a Tom Wolfe style of conservative cultural politics. Both attempts to channel sexual frustration into politics are equally ineffectual to change the world, or even to avert personal calamity. Neither is ultimately much more than an expression of bitterness toward a world that refuses to conform to the individual's idealized vision of it - for the magic seeds that refused to sprout.

Throughout there are references to the way in which people pick up ideas of what they should be or say, and then try to act up to those ideas, or ideals - references that evidently go right over the heads of critics who insist on seeing the things the characters do and say as reflections of Naipaul, when they're not even true reflections of the characters themselves.

There is great pleasure in reading these extraordinarily well-written books, and a still-deeper pleasure in thinking them through after you finish. They're masterpieces that people will be reading with admiration and even awe a hundred years from now.
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