Monday, August 24, 2009

A House for Mr. Biswas by VS Naipaul

He had lived in many houses. And how easy it was to think of those houses without him! At this moment Pundit Jairam would be at a meeting or he would be eating at home, looking forward to an evening with his books. Soanie stood in the doorway, darkening the room, waiting for the least gesture of command. In Tara's back verandah Ajodha sat relaxed in his rockingchair, his eyes closed, listening perhaps to That Body of Yours being read by Rabidat, who sat at an awkward angle, trying to hide the smell of drink and tobacco on his breath. Tara was about, harrying the cowman (it was milking-time) or harrying the yard boy or the servant girl, harrying somebody. In none of those places he was being missed because in none of these places had he ever been more than a visitor, an upsetter of routine. Was Bipti thinking of him in the back trace? But she herself was a derelict. And, even more remote, that house of mud and grass in the swamplands: probably pulled down now and ploughed up. Beyond that, a void. There was nothing to speak of him.

In many ways, A House for Mr. Biswas reads like an ancient epic, or one of Plutarch's Lives. It's scope is certainly massive; it follows its main character, Mohun Biswas, from his birth to his death. But Mr Biswas, as he is called, even in infancy, is hardly an epic character, instead a characteristically weak man who seems to be surrounded by humiliation and misfortune who marries--almost by accident--into a domineering family, the Tulsis, in the Indian community of mid-century Trinidad. They provide him with work, but control his existence with cruel indifference, and his ultimate goal is to buy or build a house of his own so that he might no longer have to depend on them.

The power of A House for Mr. Biswas lies in Naipaul's subtle, reserved style. The book seems rather plain and underwritten, but a single word of Naipaul's can do heavy lifting. In How Fiction Works James Wood cannily points out that that "Mr"--as in Mr Biswas, by which he is always referred, though other characters are called by their first names--is an honorific that once had value but now has become common and meaningless. Mr Biswas reads prodigiously and encourages his children to become learned, and sleeps in a bed always referred to by its brand name, "Slumberking," but his reality, his meekness and insignificance, are always prevalent.

In awarding him the Nobel Prize in 2001, the Nobel Committee compared Naipaul to Joseph Conrad; the irony not being lost, I'm sure, that Conrad would probably have regarded Trinidad as unfavorably as he did the Congo. But A House for Mr Biswas is a quintessentially postcolonialist novel, in which the strangely convoluted ethnic history of Trinidad is a significant factor--colonized by the Spanish, British and Dutch, replete with ethnic Africans and Indians. In another one of those subtle twists of vocabulary, Naipaul describes how the schoolchildren of Trinidad consciously choose to call their parents "Mommy and Daddy" instead of "Bap and Mai" as a reflection of their English education. But I admit I wasn't thinking of Conrad when I read it; instead I was thinking that something about it struck me as similar to Russian authors like Pushkin, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, the latter especially in the way Naipaul fills the narrative with about a billion characters.

I am happy to report that the novel, though I was sure it wouldn't, has a relatively happy ending. It isn't perfect by any means, but in the end it is a great pleasure to see Naipaul vindicate Mr Biswas in some way.

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