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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Magic Seeds


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To purchase Magic Seeds

Title: Magic Seeds
Author: V.S.Naipaul
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004
Length: 280 pages
Availability: Magic Seeds - US
Magic Seeds - UK
Magic Seeds - Canada
Magische Saat - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

A : impressive meditation on contemporary anomie

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 28/11/2004 Sven Birkerts
Daily Telegraph . 15/9/2004 Anthony Thwaite
Entertainment Weekly B 19/11/2004 Troy Patterson
The Guardian D 25/9/2004 Mike Phillips
The Hindu . 24/10/2004 Alok Rai
The Independent . 17/9/2004 Paul Bailey
Independent on Sunday . 12/9/2004 Michael Glover
The LA Times . 21/11/2004 Richard Eder
London Review of Books . 4//11/2004 Theo Tait
The Nation . 27/12/2004 Michael Wood
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 22/9/2005 Georg Sütterlin
New Statesman . 6/9/2004 Siddhartha Deb
New York . 22/11/2004 Keith Gessen
The NY Rev. of Books . 28/4/2005 John Lanchester
The NY Times D 30/11/2004 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 28/11/2004 James Atlas
The Observer . 18/9/2005 Carl Wilkinson
San Francisco Chronicle . 9/1/2005 Carey Harrison
Scotland on Sunday . 5/9/2004 .
The Spectator . 4/9/2004 Alberto Manguel
Sunday Telegraph . 5/9/2004 Philip Hensher
Sydney Morning Herald . 25/9/2004 Andrew Riemer
TLS . 3/9/2004 Sunil Khilnani
The Village Voice . 2/11/2004 Uday Benegal
The Washington Post . 19/12/2004 Michael Dirda
Die Welt . 18/6/2005 Marko Martin
Die Zeit . 8/9/2005 Martin R. Dean

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, with some impressed but more finding it disturbing and disappointing

  From the Reviews:
  • "Naipaul is deliberately obscure throughout about Willie's external coordinates -- the politics, the specifics of locale, even the increments of passing time. As a result, the reader cannot help but focus on the inner picture, the progressive wearing away of all that would orient a man toward meaning." - Sven Birkerts, Boston Globe

  • "At the end of one passage, Willie says: "And, as so often with her when she was soothsaying or story-telling, we couldn't tell at the end how we had got to where we had got. Everybody just had to look solemn and stay quiet for a while". That's rather how I feel about Magic Seeds." - Anthony Thwaite, Daily Telegraph

  • "Too static to be much of a thriller and often too schematic to draw us fully to its hero's heart, Magic Seeds nonetheless offers a gripping glimpse at the sadness of a dream deformed." - Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Magic Seeds seems to represent some sort of struggle to reassess and defend his life's work. In the end the enterprise is a failure, largely because the author has nothing new or interesting to offer. There may be many reasons to admire the body of Naipaul's writing. This book is not one of them." - Mike Phillips, The Guardian

  • "The truth is that there is something sad about the fact that someone who is, beyond doubt, a major literary figure of our times -- someone whose honesty and courage has been enabling and formative for so many -- should be exiting with such a weak book." - Alok Rai, The Hindu

  • "I wish I could record that Magic Seeds is written with Naipaul's customary elegance, but I can't, because it isn't. The prose is repetitive, set down in a faux-naÔf manner that soon irritates. If Willie is the principal character in a third novel, I shall not be following his further progress. Enough is truly enough." - Paul Bailey, The Independent

  • "The story is told with a ruthless economy of means, sparely, and with an almost brutal simplicity. In fact, it is told almost clumsily at times. Nothing is embellished; there are no descriptive flourishes of any kind whatsoever, nothing to feed the appetite of lovers of Victorian fiction. (...) It is difficult to love this novel because, finally, it feels parsimonious, haughty and out of love with this fallen world of teeming humanity. A kind of grudging admiration is perhaps the best that Naipaul can hope for from its readers" - Michael Glover, Independent on Sunday

  • "Magic Seeds, even more than its predecessor, is a horrible novel -- icy, misanthropic, pitiless, purposefully pinched in both its style and its sympathies. (...) But Magic Seeds is not just a book-length piece of bufferish provocation. Though difficult and often physically disturbing to read, it has resonant images, an insidious intelligence, and the distant cousin of a sense of humour." - Theo Tait, London Review of Books

  • "Die argumentative Brillanz und Naipauls inneres Feuer, seine Verzweiflung und seine Empathie haben Gefühlskälte und Bitterkeit Platz gemacht. Welchen Gewinn ein Leser aus diesem sterilen Roman ziehen soll, der wie eine bösartige Parodie wirkt, ist nicht klar." - Georg Sütterlin, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "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. (...) 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 self-incriminating lines his characters are given choke them before they have had a chance to breathe" - Siddhartha Deb, New Statesman

  • "It is not among Naipaulís better novels. He was once praised for the spareness of his prose style, which some people called, in shorthand, simplicity; that spareness has now become simple, and, in imitation perhaps of Tolstoy, or Gandhi, Naipaul has begun to write like a fabulist. The scenes are set pieces that invariably end with Willie spelling out the moral." - Keith Gessen, New York

  • "There are times in Naipaul's work where we feel him driven by rage, and other moments when we can feel the glee of a happy Cassandra: an enjoyment at being the man to give us the bad news, to tell us what we don't want to hear. Magic Seeds is full of those moments" - John Lanchester, The New York Review of Books

  • "Magic Seeds, in contrast, is less a full-fledged novel than a didactic thesis featuring characters who deliver speeches instead of conversation, and who seem less like real people than mouthpieces for the author's own sour opinions about everything from colonialism to multiculturalism to the English welfare state. (...) Mr. Naipaul's contempt for all the people he has created in this novel makes for a mean, stingy book - a book full of judgmental pronouncements and free-floating rage, and sadly bereft of insight, compassion or wisdom." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Magic Seeds is a lazy book. Gone is even the pretext of narrative art or plausible dialogue. The characters hold forth as if they're in a Diderot play. (...) The sex scenes are ghastly." - James Atlas, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A)lthough Naipaul's prose is as intelligent, probing and masterful as ever, and Magic Seeds is a complex, rigorous book, the story ultimately lacks real magic." - Carl Wilkinson, The Observer

  • "The life Willie Chandran leads, and the reality he observes, is imagined for us in painfully bleak detail. Never has Naipaul's language been more carefully confined. Terse, accurate, concrete, it offers a brutally claustrophobic image of existence. And yet it is precisely this, in a world forever grabbing at salvation, that makes Magic Seeds so liberating to read." - Carey Harrison, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "In spite of its austere and ungenerous vision, Magic Seeds is pleasingly well-paced and, for the most part, elegantly written." - Scotland on Sunday

  • "Reading Magic Seeds we are not, to use a Naipaul title, Ďamong the believersí. We are among the pretenders." - Alberto Manguel, The Spectator

  • "What is left is a style of narrow, exquisite refinement. The story is told straight, in dry sequence. Most of the book runs like a philosophical dialogue between characters. Many of the small episodes are punctuated by Willie's thoughts, baldly presented. (...) With its deliberate narrowness of means, its characteristic noble grace of expression, and the disillusioned clarity of its analysis, this is a radical further step in one of the great imaginative careers of our time." - Philip Hensher, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Magic Seeds is an important enrichment of Naipaul's oeuvre. But making sense of it is an uneasy business. It has been increasingly clear with his late fictions that we read them to hear the author's voice, not those of his characters (how different it is to read A House for Mr Biswas). The experience is undoubtedly powerful, but it yields a diminished sense of what the novel is for." - Sunil Khilnani, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The book is mostly prosaic, needlessly repetitive; if nothing else, perfectly symbiotic with Willie Chandran's own flaccid character. Like Willie it stutters and drifts, lacking cogency and depth of spirit. Naipaul himself seems drained of all desire to engage the reader, or too jaded to try." - Uday Benegal, The Village Voice

  • "Magic Seeds, from Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, isn't much of a novel; the prose is alternately odd and masterful, and the book will puzzle many readers. In particular, the overall aimlessness of the plot provokes restiveness and is likely to cause one to wonder: Am I missing something ?" - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

  • "Um es gleich zu sagen: Dies ist ein immens wichtiges Buch. Dies ist ein geradezu grandios gescheiterter Roman." - Marko Martin, Die Welt

  • "Naipauls neuer Roman mit dem geheimnisvollen Titel Magische Saat überrascht indessen durch eine zutiefst düstere und pessimistische Weltsicht und frauenfeindliche Invektiven. (...) So unplastisch Willies Erleben im indischen Dschungelkrieg bleibt, in den Details besticht Naipauls Genauigkeit stets aufs Neue." - Martin R. Dean, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       V.S.Naipaul told the story of Willie Somerset Chandran's first forty years in Half A Life. Magic Seeds continues Willie's story, yet this is not a life made whole: it continues, very much, to remain half a life.
       Magic Seeds picks up where Half A Life left off, Willie living with his sister in Berlin. The opening suggests a retrospective approach:

     It had begun many years before, in Berlin. Another world. He was living there in a temporary, half-and-half way with his sister Sarojini.
       But the narrative does not maintain this looking-back approach, instead moving along (if, often, barely ahead) blindly (much like Willie) from this time in Berlin to its conclusion in the present:
       Willie notes: "I was always someone on the outside. I still am." What he does next, after his brief stay in Berlin, -- pushed into it by his revolutionary-friendly sister -- is certainly a spectacular attempt to do something and would seem to offer certain change, but leaves him more of an outsider than ever: he returns to India to join a guerrilla movement.
       Sarojini admires a revolutionary named Kandapalli, and Willie looks to join his movement. Naturally, things go wrong from the start, and he actually winds up a member of a different faction. Almost immediately he realises:
There has been some mistake. I have fallen in among the wrong people. I have come to the wrong revolution.
       Willie's world is one where mistakes are not corrected, but accepted and embraced (perhaps because almost everything that happens to Willie seems to be a mistake): Willie knows he's with the wrong crowd, but he sticks with them for some seven years.
       This isn't the world's most impressive insurgency, but it's as good as typical in its own festering, uncertain, damaged and damaging way. In the area they are active the group has the ability to establish hold over villages and parts of great swaths of territory: there's simply too much land, too far from any cities or even real towns, for the government to easily control it. The guerrillas have some success, but it is limited, with little hope for grand or revolutionary accomplishment over the long-term. What ideology they fight for is the usual muddled, unclear philosophy of many a revolutionary movement, adapted to the situation they find themselves in:
There was to be a renewed emphasis on the old idea of liquidating the class enemy. Since the feudal people had long ago run away, and there was strictly speaking no class enemy left in these villages, the people to be liquidated were the better off.
       There's no attempt to improve the life of the peasants, merely to force them to serve (or at least put up with) the revolution around them. Success is measured not in actual accomplishment but in the destructive tit-for-tat with the authorities:
Murders of class enemies -- which now meant only peasants with a little too much land -- were required now, to balance the successes of the police.
       It's an incredibly boring life, too, but the aimlessness of it, and the ignorance in which Willie is kept is, if not exactly fine with him, something he is willing to put up with. Much of the time he is simply a courier, his ability to look "at home everywhere", to blend in, making him a valuable asset (which he eventually blows by constantly claiming poste restante letters from his sister in Germany ...). The other activists come from all sorts of backgrounds; many are, like Willie, lost souls, unable to find a hold in the real world and willing to be what amounts to game-pieces in this movement.
       Naipaul presents the movement as anything but a noble cause, but it's a convincing depiction of perverted revolutionary idealism and zeal (as happens often if not inevitably with such movements). He captures the insurgency and those affected by it -- activists and villagers alike -- extraordinarily well. It's a tough slog, rather than an exciting adventure for Willie, its main features a numbing fear and boredom. Largely following Willie's experience, Naipaul also offers others' stories, suggesting circumstances that lead to such fates and the senseless waste caused by this activity. Willie, and many of his comrades, remain outsiders, hardly even feeling safe in the protective but loose and vulnerable network that makes up the movement.
       Willie isn't a take-charge kind of guy, and when he eventually decides to escape it is only because another of the revolutionaries agrees to help him that he is able to go through with it. They surrender themselves to the police, though Willie has thought this through so little that he: "confused the idea of surrender with amnesty", and is at least mildly disappointed to finding himself sentenced to ten years in jail.
       Efficient (if not always effective) meddler Sarojini does manage to help him out of this mess as well; ironically it lands him in permanent exile back in England. Here too he moves in with an old friend, Roger (who has problems of his own), and muddles along, taking what comes his way but barely trying to shape his life.
       The real world -- and the present -- aren't places where Willie feels too comfortable. Typically, he finds he doesn't like going about London any more:
It no longer excited him to see the London of his past. To see it too often was to strip it of memories, and in this way to lose precious pieces of himself.
       (Given his identity-problem -- there's precious little to that self as is -- this attitude is, to say the least, troubling.)
       "I don't have the philosophy to cope", Willie writes to his sister, but there doesn't seem to be any philosophy that would fit the bill for him. Willie is displaced, at a remove from reality in all senses -- but he's far from the only one. As Roger (feeling a different sort of anomie) points out, for example:
The common people are as confused and uncertain as everybody else. They are actors, like everybody else. Their accents are changing. They try to be like people in the television soaps, and now they've lost touch with what they really might be. And there's no one to tell them.
       Much of the conversation and many of the observations in Magic Seeds are unpleasant, and some may be considered offensive. Many of them match Naipaul's own pronouncements, and so Magic Seeds can be seen as a platform for Naipaul to convey these opinions, but it looks to be a bit more complicated than that. What Roger spouts about council estates and their residents is particularly unpleasant, but tellingly Naipaul has him acknowledge (in describing meeting a friend of his father's housekeeper, who turns out not to look "plebeian or council-estate", as he had expected):
     I had worked out a character for her, but, as had been happening more and more in my work in recent years, I had got it wrong.
       Roger constantly tries to define and explain the changed world around him -- but Naipaul has him admit that he often doesn't get it right, which makes Roger an unlikely mouthpiece for whatever Naipaul might mean to be taken seriously.
       One of Naipaul's main points is that everyone is at sea. Roger believes that when there was a servant class which knew its place there was at least some clarity and certainty; though he doesn't quite admit it, it's clear that its disappearance upsets his own (imagined and neat) world at least as much as theirs.
       Roger offers one explanation to Willie -- surprisingly, since it clearly applies to Willie as much as the people he is talking about:
They're confused. They're not too well educated. That was the smart thing at one time. But now they don't know who they are and what's expected of them. The world has changed much too quickly for them.
       It's a lament for a simpler, more orderly past (not that that was what the past was really like ...), and much of Magic Seeds is a somewhat grumpy rant against modernity and what has become of civilization. Willie sees much the same in India, where he fears the "churning of the castes" is a more important question than the religious question, with people not knowing their place and being treated (and thereby also, in some ways, given responsibility) in a way they are not capable of handling -- which, he is certain, will lead to catastrophe (just as Roger thinks the vanished servant class is -- to disastrous effect -- "still in varying ways with us, in cultures and attitudes of dependence").
       If Naipaul's novel is seen strictly as a vehicle to convey these often preposterous notions and simplistic rationalizations it could easily be dismissed. But there are people who think (and act) like Willie and Roger and the insurgents. Naipaul presents them as anything but heroes, or people who clearly know what is right; instead, they are all damaged souls, uneasy in the contemporary world and unable to fully (and, more significantly, happily) function in it. Naipaul's diagnosis sounds authentic, even if the justifications and explanations he (or at least his characters) offer are, at best, misguided.
       The confused modern world and its more confused inhabitants are artfully presented by Naipaul. It is not a pleasant picture, but it rings horribly true. Naipaul feels that lack of direction and purpose is the root of the problem -- though through Roger he goes one step further: "And there's no one to tell them", Roger complains, as if all that it took was for someone to put people in their place. But Naipaul also appears to acknowledge that this is an age that can not be directed: Willie, after all, does almost nothing but what he is told, blindly following even those he disagrees with, and it does not serve him (or the world) well at all. (Roger's love-making with his council-estate mistress, Marian -- she commanding him to do what she believes (or has been told) men of his background want (but which he doesn't), he obeying -- shows how far the confusion has spread, that even the most natural act is turned into unpleasant play-acting.)
       If Willie is an idealist, he does a poor job of acting on it. He is drawn to better-world initiatives, but -- whether it is something as simple as practising yoga or as complex as starting the revolution -- is unable to carry them out with much conviction or enthusiasm -- or any success. The conclusion he reaches is that: "It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That's where the mischief starts", but he fails to note that it is others' ideal views that have failed him. He has, after all, never managed to embrace one of his own. In fact, at the end of the novel Willie seems to be on the verge of doing exactly the opposite of what Roger maintains is necessary, ready to not listen to others, to not do as he is told and what is expected, turning away from false ideals and expectations. It's unclear that he'll ever have the strength or resolve to go through with it, but certainly his only hope lies there.
       Presenting, for the most part, an unpleasant world-view, wallowing as few have managed before in anomie, and with characters so flawed that it's hard to feel any sympathy with them, Magic Seeds may not seem the most appealing of novels, but it is a compelling read. Naipaul's presentation is unusual too: it's an isolated world, each man pretty much an island, and much of the material is presented in monologues and letters and, especially, the characters' thoughts. It keeps the reader at a distance too, and yet keeps a firm hold too: Magic Seeds is an unlikely page-turner, but it definitely is one.
       Not a pleasant book, but an exceptional one.

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Magic Seeds: Reviews: V.S.Naipaul: Other books by V.S.Naipaul under review: Books about V.S. Naipaul under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He attended University College, Oxford. In 2001 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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