We are like paupers who take their meager goods to market in hopes of getting magic seeds in exchange, observes a character in "Magic Seeds," the new novel by Nobel Prize...

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We are like paupers who take their meager goods to market in hopes of getting magic seeds in exchange, observes a character in “Magic Seeds,” the new novel by Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul. Unfortunately, the bean stalk that grows from them is more likely to be a tangled, strangling vine than a route to riches.

“Magic Seeds” is the sequel to “Half a Life,” which followed Willie Chandran from his birthplace in India to college in London and then to East Africa. His name suggests a man of little will. Indeed, in “Half a Life” Willie moved with neither friction nor intent from one identity to another, a trajectory that added up to considerably less than half a life.

In that earlier book, Willie’s sister wrote a letter that planted a seed. “You will see how much there is to do in the world,” she wrote, “and how you are selfishly wasting your life in London doing this little thing and that little thing and not knowing why you are doing anything.” “Magic Seeds” is the fruition, but we see that it is perfectly possible to be a revolutionary for the downtrodden and still “not know why you are doing anything.”

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“Magic Seeds”

by V.S. Naipaul

Knopf, 280 pp., $25

The new novel follows Willie back to India, where he means to join a revolutionary group but inadvertently joins a splinter organization opposed to the leader who inspired him. He writes to his sister, “I must tell you I feel I am lost. I don’t know what cause I am serving, and why I am doing what I do.” When it comes time to fight, Willie “had lived too long now with his disconnected landscapes, his disconnected duties, with no true idea of the results of his actions.” He merely follows. Still, the movement gives Willie a fleeting purpose, as if he is living a “whole life.”

Even when it comes time to kill, Willie’s will is a paltry thing. He eventually surrenders, in fact, not because of any change of ideology, but because he can’t stand the idleness of life in the jungle between skirmishes. After he is sentenced to prison, the idleness of incarceration seems less oppressive; he seems almost at peace with “the regimented, protected life of the jail.”

Willie is granted early release, partly on the strength of a book of short stories he published during his college years. He returns to London, where he pursues a dispirited affair with a woman for whom he had a passing infatuation 20 years before. She is the wife of a friend, but no matter: The friend is involved in his own dispirited (and dispiriting) affair.

It could be taxing to follow a protagonist who is a blank spot in his own life, but Naipaul writes a pure, direct prose that carries the reader along and provides a thread of continuity. “Magic Seeds” makes high art of the convolutions of a life as tangled and unplanned as a wild jungle vine.