The Fiction of Revolution

Article excerpt


V. S. Naipaul's new novel, "Miracle Seeds," is the second installment of the author's narrative of the life of Willie Chandran, a native of India whose father was a Brahman and his mother a member of a much lower caste. Mr. Naipaul's 2001 novel, "Half a Life," published the same year he won the Nobel Prize for literature, introduced readers to Willie, who grew up in that book, went to college in London, published a collection of stories about India, got dubbed by reviewers a rising star of Indian literature, and then went off to Africa where he lived with Ana, a part-Portuguese, part-African woman he'd met in England.

At the beginning of this novel, Willie - who was named for the English novelist William Somerset Maugham, a man his father met as a young man - has fled Africa and Ana and is living with his younger sister, Sarojini, in Berlin. Sarojini and her companion, a German documentary filmmaker, are left-wing intellectuals, of the verbal variety: They mouth loyalty to revolution and side with the downtrodden of the world while never involving themselves directly with revolutionary violence.

But they know people who are committed to violence and Sarojini puts Willie, who is now about 40, in touch with leftist guerrilla warriors in India. Willie joins up - by accident he finds himself a member of a very a violent and disaffected band, not the milder one his sister intended that he become a part of - and spends the next several years of his life in remote, rural India tramping through jungles and sharing the the harsh life of his fellow rebels.

Willie befriends three guerrillas and relishes those friendships which comes as a suprise because he regarded each man with suspicion when they first met. With a rifle and at a distance, he kills a rich man as proof of his revolutionary mettle. But Willie along with one of the guerrillas he's come to know and like grow weary and disillusioned with the life they've been living and turn themselves into the police. They're sentenced to jail. But Sarojini and English friends work for his release, arguing that the book of stories he'd publilshed nearly three decades earlier proves that he is basically a literary man, not a terrorist.

They succeed and at the novel's conclusion Willie is free and in London, where Indian officials have required him to live as a condition of his release. That's the bare bones of the story that "Miracle Seeds" tells. But out of Willie's passive, modest and sometimes pathetic life, Mr. Naipaul manages to say a great deal about the 20th century and social upheaval.

In the end, if Willie doesn't become an everyman in whom readers can see themselves writ large, he does serve as a witness to the violence and change he sees all around him wherever he is and which he observes with (sometimes) a clear eye and uncommon intuition.

Mr. Naipaul's main themes are big ones and familiar to readers of his fiction and nonfiction: the nature of guerrilla warfare and revolution, for example, and what draws men and women to it; what individual human identity means in a world where old ways rapidly disappear and new habits of mind and behavior haven't been created. But above all, Mr. Naipaul is interested in the vast social transformations that have struck almost every square foot of the globe.

Willie takes note of what he calls the "churning of the castes" that is taking place in his native country, a churning that promises, he believes, to change India profoundly - and soon. When he returns to England after his time in prison and three decades after he was first there, he sees how immigration of former British colonials has made London and much of the rest of the country very different from the one he recalled. …