Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Book 48, Trinidad and Tobago: “A House for Mr Biswas” by V.S. Naipaul

Yet another Nobel Prizewinner from the Caribbean. How the hell do they churn out so many? Been ploughing through this 642-page monster all through my promotional trip to London.

Truth is, I’m not a huge fan. At first I was in awe of how Dickensian it was: the way Naipaul paints his characters in a simultaneously comic and tragic light, with that air of distance – Mr Biswas is named Mr Biswas by the narrator even when he’s a newborn, having his ill fortune told by the pundit.

But as the book goes on, the tragedy turns into farce. Biswas is a Born Loser, failing as a son, failing as a trainee pundit, failing as a husband (and really, no matter how obnoxious the Tulsi family is, his surliness to his benefactors and abuse of his wife is inexcusable), failing in half his jobs as well (though he’s okay as a journalist and sign-painter and just mediocre as a civil servant), also failing as a buyer and builder of houses, which is the whole point of the book: owning a house of one’s own, where one can die with some dignity.

What’s odd amongst all this depressing fuckuppery is that Biswas actually improves his material goods and status over the course of his life: he starts out as a plantation worker’s barefoot son and ends off as a journalist who has his own place, never mind that it’s rickety and it’s left him 4,000 bucks in debt. Is Naipaul saying that development doesn’t count for that much? Or is the idea of the flawed house of one’s own an analogy for Trinidad’s independence (achieved one year after the publication of the book): a mitigated triumph, purchased at unreasonable cost but to be cherished nonetheless? Or maybe it’s just biographical: according to the Wikipedia entry, a lot of it’s based on the life of Naipaul’s own father.

I guess it’s still amazing that a book from Trinidad was able to break into the world market all the way back in 1961. Aside from that, I can’t say it’s worth your time.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map
Oh boy, but that's the entire Caribbean archipelago finished and done with! Now back to South America.

Representative quote: How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without it: to have died among the Tulsis, amid the squalor of that large, disintegrating and indifferent family; to have left Shama and the children among them, in one room; worse, to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one's portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.

Next book: Rómulo Gallegos's Doña Bárbara, from Venezuela.

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