A House for Mr. Biswas is only the third of V. S. Naipaul’s books that I have read but this prolific author has already cemented a place in my mind that would have me petitioning for the Nobel Prize for Literature to be conferred upon him, if it hadn’t already been awarded in 2001.
The novel is a delightful read about Caribbean life as experienced in the middle of the twentieth century when those descended from Indian indentured workers lived amongst those descended from emancipated African slaves, and their children in turn continued the prejudices that they had learned despite their change in circumstances. The characters’ interactions show how they overcome their academic ignorance through cunning intellect, how they choose what of their parents’ religious practices and beliefs will serve them and discard the rest, how they seek to move to the next level by accepting only those outside forces that they think will help them reach their goals. A House for Mr Biswas is a story about the gritty smile of ambition, worn on the face of someone who has been cowed down and ridiculed and yet who maintains the dream in his heart. The main character moves through life with an urgency that foreshadows his early death, almost as if he knows he has but so long in which to accomplish his move from cursed child to successful man, and understands that the society that would a curse on an innocent child will do nothing to help him overcome it so the journey to success will be his alone.
Read on a superficial level, the novel is a hero story. And yet, it is even more. If the reader, accepts a priori, that Mr. Biswas is an allegorical character instead of just an unfortunate man, that Mohun represents his island home of Trinidad and Tobago and that his experiences mirror those of his country in its struggle to cast off the mantle of colonialism and establish independence in a world that would replace diplomatic relations with trade embargos if the wrong alliances are made. If the novel is read so that Mohan’s in-laws, The Tulsis, represent the immigrant society that would collect the coins of their black neighbors and send their children to the Catholic schools but refuse any other social interaction with these others, that they are a reflection of the discrete levels of the Indian caste system. If A House for Mr. Biswas is read so that the house of the main character’s dreams reflect the struggle for acceptance that the desire to be counted that can only be granted when one dies. If the story is read so that the humor is not just clever and witty but sardonic and wry, a statement about our politics and our place, a statement that hasn’t much changed since Naipaul first published his creation in 1961.
The novel traces the life of a young boy of Aryan blood, living in Trinidad and Tobago in the mid 1900s. Mr. Biswas is a dreamer but also a doer as he takes his dream of literature to a practical job and his schoolboy calligraphy becomes a paid sign-writing job, which eventually yields to a career as a journalist and something even more enduring as he becomes a literary character and pens his story for us.
Topics to look for in this novel
- Gender – the role of women in families and treatment of women
- Religion – which practices reflect traditional Hindu beliefs and which are hybridized to match present circumstances
- Home – what compromises are necessary to get a house, how a person’s station in life changes with the acquisition of a house (reflected through of each of Mr. Biswas’ accommodations, including the doll house he gets for his daughter)