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Master of the margins

With his new tale of a rootless Indian, V.S. Naipaul continues his chronicle of the dispossessed

Magic Seeds
By V. S. Naipaul
Knopf, 280 pp., $25

Trinidad-born, Oxford-educated, V. S. Naipaul has for 50 years put before the world his unsparing scenarios of post-colonial dissolution. In a dozen novels, including ''Guerrillas" and ''A Bend in the River," as well as the documentary reportage of books like ''Among the Believers" and ''India," he has given us the fragmented cultures and unhoused populations as well as the ad hoc political initiatives and the consequences they inflict on individuals bereft of viable traditions. At the same time, he has refused the consolations of victim psychology, looking as remorselessly at the disinherited as at those who have done the disinheriting. Difficult to like, he has proved impossible to ignore, as was recognized by the Swedish Academy when it awarded him the Nobel Prize in 2001.

Since then Naipaul has been at work on a pair of novels recounting the life of Willie Chandran, who in ''Half a Life" (2001) leaves India and his mahatma-worshipping father to start a literary career in London, but who then marries a well-to-do woman and goes to live with her in Africa, where he witnesses firsthand a culture coming apart. Willie is brought face to face with his own passivity, and at the end of the novel he tells his wife, Ana, that he is leaving. ''I am forty-one. I am tired of living your life," he says, adding, ''Now the best part of my life has gone, and I've done nothing."

''Magic Seeds," Naipaul's new novel, carries on the saga of this modern man who has lost -- worse, who has never found -- his sense of self. Willie has gone to Berlin to stay with his sister, Sarojini, an outspoken and politically engaged filmmaker. Beside her he is nothing; he is a die waiting to be rolled. So when Sarojini suggests that he go back to India to fight for revolution with a leader named Kandapalli, he agrees.

Willie adopts the coloration -- the plans and purposes -- of his new cause. Subjecting himself to tests and grillings, he somehow passes muster as a courier. As Willie observes to a comrade early on: ''It's the one thing I have worked at all my life: not being at home anywhere, but looking at home." He allows himself to be led slowly, stage by stage, into the nomadic backcountry life of the insurgent cadre.

Willie never knows exactly what he is to do, or why, and neither does the reader. Years pass. At first Willie carries messages. Later he and his cohorts smuggle weapons, attend meetings, establish contacts with sympathizers; there are random killings, unexplained betrayals. And then, unexpectedly, Willie learns from one of Sarojini's letters that he may be fighting on the wrong side. Any sense of mission he has acquired is turned inside out. His hard-won sense of purpose collapses, but when he moves to leave he is captured and jailed.

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. It is almost as if Willie were working his way backward along the arc of normal social development, letting go of one imagined necessity after another, winnowing away all excess, all social connections, until at last he subsists on ascetic rations and sleeps where he can, facing his baseline existence with an animal's dull stolidity. Prison is but the culmination of the process.

But then, when he has been brought to the point of inertia, Willie is rescued. Sarojini pulls strings, friends intervene. In the space of a few pages, he is out of jail and in London, open to whatever might be the next thing. The years of wandering are only rarely reflected on. You see, Naipaul seems to be saying, this is just how things are now.

At novel's end, Willie goes with a friend to a wedding, a mixed-race celebration that conveys to Willie not just festivity but also the true look of a world in which traditional lines of division, of social expectation, have been erased and redrawn so much as to be no longer useful. But now Willie accepts this: He takes it in with the same unblinking receptivity that he learned from his long conditioning in the backcountry of India. ''It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world," he says to himself. ''That's where the mischief starts. That's where everything starts unravelling."

I can't help but think of the opening line of ''A Bend in the River": ''The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." I hear a change of emphasis. Willie, who has indeed allowed himself to become nothing, has put himself smack in the middle of everything. He would say that the old thinking is dead, that there is a place for everyone. Is this progress? It's hard to say. Progress, for Naipaul, has become part of the problem; it belongs with that ideal view of things we need to outgrow once and for all.

Sven Birkerts edits the journal Agni at Boston University. 

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