The following is the text of the introductory address made at the launch of Magic Seeds on November 18 at Oxford Bookshop, Calcutta.
It’s not only a privilege and an honour to be able to welcome Sir Vidia to Calcutta, but also something of a relief to have him here finally. Some thing happened a few weeks ago which delayed his visit, and threatened to rob the event of its momentum; but, as it happens, one of the results of the delay is that one feels one can receive Sir Vidia in a more relaxed way this time; one has the illusion of him having been here not too long ago.
This morning, I looked at my copy of The Overcrowded Barracoon to reread his record of his first visit to Calcutta, an account called "Jamshed into Jimmy", which appeared in the New Statesman as long ago as 1963. For all its satire, the piece has the freshness of a gifted writer, himself young, discovering, unexpectedly, a great city rising among the rubbish-heaps and rioters. The essay begins with a snatch of conversation: ‘"You’ve come to Calcutta at the wrong time," the publisher said. "I very much fear the dear old city is slipping into bourgeois respectability almost without a fight."’
Today, forty one years later, at the end of a twenty-four-hour bandh fiercely opposed by the government and the high court, we feel we’re almost there: that Sir Vidia is here at the right time. "Nothing had prepared me for the Maidan," the young V.S. Naipaul goes on to say, "tree-dotted, now in the early evening blurred with mist and suggesting Hyde Park, with Chowringhee as a brighter Oxford Street…" Quick comparisons, each containing a brilliant, distilled picture, follow: "Lutyen’s New Delhi is a disaster… a city built for parades rather than people"; Bombay "is cosmopolitan to the point of characterlessness" — which is a pitilessly accurate description of the city I grew up in in the Sixties and Seventies. Only in Calcutta does the young Naipaul find a "rooted grandeur".
Well, much has changed and happened since then, both in our cities and in the writer’s own career. But, in this early piece, we’re with someone who’s already written one indisputable masterpiece, A House For Mr Biswas, and would go on to write other considerable works, including The Mimic Men, Finding the Centre, A Bend in the River, and The Enigma of Arrival; already, in this piece, the gifts — the instinct for comedy, the eye both as an astonishing receptacle and filter of detail, fixing what’s important, ignoring the unnecessary, the ear for dialogue and the sentence, the unillusioned satire, the always unexpected but abiding capacity for wonder — these gifts, which make V.S. Naipaul, in my view, the pre-eminent writer in the English language of the second half of the 20th century, are already in evidence.
To me, one of V.S. Naipaul’s principal achievements is the way in which he, as a writer without a real community, a real history, a real home, turned his gaze directly from these things one automatically "owns" towards the act and vocation of writing itself, the writer’s struggle with material, the mythology of the writer’s career, from the first embryonic daydreams to the discovery of one’s subject-matter and later. The discussion of writing in V.S. Naipaul’s work is more than a literary discussion on technique and sensibility; it is a description of writing as a habitation, constantly struggled over, constantly fought for, constantly in the process of being created, by a man without a home or history. Something happens in this narrative about writing, and the writer’s life, in V.S. Naipaul’s middle period. The old disjunction, proposed and then investigated so eloquently by Europeans like Mann, between the writer and society, the writer and the world, is conflated, imperceptibly, subtly, in The Mimic Men, Finding the Centre, The Enigma of Arrival, with the disjunction between the post-colonial and his place in the world he came from as well as the world he journeys to. The European idea of the writer’s homelessness merges, in Naipaul, with the homelessness of the post-colonial: it is a conflation that has had profound and far-reaching consequences for the contemporary literary imagination.
Not too long ago, I finished reading Magic Seeds. It is a deeply impressive work, a work, as the critic and novelist, Philip Hensher, pointed out acutely in the Daily Telegraph, in V.S. Naipaul’s "late style"; by which Hensher means, I think, that the writer here is both more spare and unsparing than he has been before. Willie Chandran, whom we first met in Half a Life, is waiting, after emigrating from Africa to Berlin, for destiny to direct him. Destiny speaks to him in the voice of his sister, Sarojini, who exhorts him not to waste his life in self-centredness and to join a revolutionary movement in south India. This Willie does; finds he has joined the wrong movement; moves helplessly from scene to scene, action to action; until, much later, when he feels most trapped, his sister and an old friend find a way of rescuing him and bringing him to London as the writer of a forgotten but rediscovered pioneering work of post-colonial fiction.
One of the things that startled me about this work is the rapidity and visual vividness with which it moves from locale to locale, place to place: from a café in Berlin to an aeroplane flying to India, from a hut in a village in south India to a tannery, from there to a post office in a small town, then to, for instance, a landlord’s house, then to London, to St John’s Wood, and from there to the image of a council estate, and, finally, a post-modern suburban wedding; it is a photographer’s aesthetic, employing both risk and chance as narrative methods and introducing them as constituents of our lives in a way that is without precedent in Naipaul. I found the London section particularly disturbing and impressive. The more one lives in a neighbourhood, I think, the more one becomes familiar with it; but the longer one lives in the world, the less familiar it becomes. This is the sense the London section, and this novel as a whole, conveys as few other works in recent memory have. The contemporary world is, in a wholly new way, unrecognizable and estranging; and this novel has turned upon it an equally estranging and unrecognizable gaze. It’s the unrecognizability of this gaze, rather than the familiar Naipaulean virtues, that I find, here, so oddly unsettling and moving.
The above first appeared in The Telegraph of Calcutta.