Saturday, February 22, 2014


A House For Mr Biswas, V S Naipaul, McGraw-Hill Book Company Inc, 1961, 531 pp

V S Naipaul's fourth novel is his longest so far. Still mining the Trinidadian Indian Hindu community amid which he grew up, the locations, people, traditions, the Pundits and the strivers, the remnants of the Indian caste system, are all in play. Having read all four books, I swear I feel as though I know these people well.

This is a more somber book. Some humor remains but it felt as though Naipaul's affection for his people had waned. The story covers the entire life of Mr Biswas from his birth under a few bad signs to his death. One funny thing is that the author calls him Mr Biswas throughout and rarely uses his first name.

Mr Biswas lost his father at a young age and was reared mostly by relatives in varying stages of poverty. He had virtually no self confidence but his lifelong dream was to have a house of his own. He eventually married into a wealthy family, got a job as a newspaper reporter, and had four children. Until the age of forty, he was doomed to live in the houses of his wife's family where he felt belittled.

I am puzzled as to why I found the novel so readable. The writing is assured and in a style not quite resembling any other author. Besides immersing the reader in the society and times of Trinidad, including the harbor city Port of Spain, Naipaul brings to life the customs, strivings, and intimate details of these people. He made me feel their absurdities as well as their eternal efforts to rise from the indentured workers who were their ancestors into participation in mid 20th century life by means of education and grasping onto any possible business opportunities.

So it is an immigrant story in the long run and that is pretty much the story of the world: people who have come from somewhere else either by choice or because of wars and slavery, intermingling their lives, customs and beliefs with other peoples. It is essentially a sad story and so is the life of Mr Biswas threaded with defeats and humiliations.

I kept hoping he would triumph somehow but his accomplishments were miniscule, reminding me that history is actually made up mostly of people living from day to day with hopes that are largely dashed but always harboring those hopes as an incentive to rise above mere survival.

A House For Mr Biswas is considered to be Naipaul's breakout book. After this he moved on to writing novels set in Great Britain and around the world. He has won both the Booker Prize and the Nobel along with a reputation bespattered in recent years with charges of misogyny and racism. In the numerous portrayals of beatings of children and wives along with a deep distrust of anyone not Hindu that pepper his early novels, I can see how his influences would make it difficult to achieve any level of "political correctness." Perhaps he has carried Mr Biswas with him throughout his life.

(A House For Mr Biswas is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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