Mr. Biswas wants a house (making the title of A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul pretty apt). He hopes for a lot of things, but mainly getting an even break. As an Indian born poor in Trinidad, that probably isn’t going to happen.
(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for both Heidi Julavits and Claire Messud.)
Mr. Biswas strives throughout the book, but the reader always knows that only so much is going to come of it. He’s born under very poor omens, and ends up being the unintentional cause of his father’s drowning death. His life becomes difficult, his mother shunting him around to different places trying to do something with him in life, usually with poor results. He yearns more and more to make a decent way in life and have a permanent home.
Then, somewhat intentionally but mostly by accident and machinations of others, Mr. Biswas gets married. He’s dependent on his wife’s family, which is not particularly pleasant. Still, he makes his way in life.
Now, before you get the idea that this is a ‘poor Mr. Biswas’ story, it isn’t really. Though his chances are pretty poor, he does a lot of things to himself. Arrogance, ignorance, stubbornness, and poor judgment, Mr. Biswas is instrumental in the way that life throws him around. And, for everything that others do to him, he mistreats someone (his wife, his children, and so on) himself.
Of course, not that he’s a bad person either. He’s just imperfect. It’s just life.
A House for Mr. Biswas is a happily tragic story. The details are thorough, vivid, and beautiful. I kind of felt the story was already told when things got started, but it was still a pleasure to read. In one man’s life, A House for Mr. Biswas manages to capture what seems to be the story for most. That gives the writing a great deal of power.
I hate to just give a giant block quote instead of mixing smaller pieces into a review, but the first section of the opener is such a perfect encapsulation of the book (perhaps it tells everything and makes the book a little unnecessary other than for the enjoyment of reading?). There is no other way that would convey the whole book better. Thus, the entire first section of the opener:
Ten weeks before he died, Mr Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St James, Port of Spain, was sacked. He had been ill for some time. In less than a year he had spent more than nine weeks at the Colonial Hospital and convalesced at home for even longer. When the doctor advised him to take a complete rest the Trinidad Sentinel had no choice. It gave Mr Biswas three months’ notice and continued, up to the time of his death, to supply him every morning with a free copy of the paper.
Mr Biswas was forty-six, and had four children. He had no money. His wife Shama had no money. On the house in Sikkim Street Mr Biswas owed, and had been owing for four years, three thousand dollars. The interest on this, at eight per cent, came to twenty dollars a month; the ground rent was ten dollars. Two children were at school. The two older children, on whom Mr Biswas might have depended, were both abroad on scholarships.
It gave Mr Biswas some satisfaction that in the circumstances Shama did not run straight off to her mother to beg for help. Ten years before that would have been her first thought. Now she tried to comfort Mr Biswas, and devised plans on her own.
‘Potatoes,’ she said. ‘We can start selling potatoes. The price around here is eight cents a pound. If we buy at five and sell at seven —’
‘Trust the Tulsi bad blood,’ Mr Biswas said. ‘I know that the pack of you Tulsis are financial geniuses. But have a good look around and count the number of people selling potatoes. Better to sell the old car.’
‘No. Not the car. Don’t worry. We’ll manage.’
‘Yes,’ Mr Biswas said irritably. ‘We’ll manage.’
No more was heard of the potatoes, and Mr Biswas never threatened again to sell the car. He didn’t now care to do anything against his wife’s wishes. He had grown to accept her judgment and to respect her optimism. He trusted her. Since they had moved to the house Shama had learned a new loyalty, to him and to their children; away from her mother and sisters, she was able to express this without shame, and to Mr Biswas this was a triumph almost as big as the acquiring of his own house.
He thought of the house as his own, though for years it had been irretrievably mortgaged. And during these months of illness and despair he was struck again and again by the wonder of being in his own house, the audacity of it: to walk in through his own front gate, to bar entry to whoever he wished, to close his doors and windows every night, to hear no noises except those of his family, to wander freely from room to room and about his yard, instead of being condemned, as before, to retire the moment he got home to the crowded room in one or the other of Mrs Tulsi’s houses, crowded with Shama’s sisters, their husbands, their children. As a boy he had moved from one house of strangers to another; and since his marriage he felt he had lived nowhere but in the house of the Tulsis, at Hanuman House in Arwacas, in the decaying wooden house at Shorthills, in the clumsy concrete house in Port of Spain. And now at the end he found himself in his own house, on his own half-lot of land, his own portion of the earth. That he should have been responsible for this seemed to him, in these last months, stupendous.
That is A House for Mr. Biswas. The next 562 pages really just elaborates on that perfect encapsulation…though you should still read it.