on 16 May 2005
VS Naipaul's story of the struggle of a poor labourer's son growing up in early 19th century Trinidad is remarkable for its realism - something few people have pointed out, preferring instead to dwell on the oft mentioned tragi-comedy aspect of his writings. Those who come from similar backgrounds in the colonies will surely get the feeling of déjà-vu. For example, one of the things that you aspire to growing up on the islands is to have a house of your own some day, which is what the whole story is about.
Naipaul's trademark comedy permeates the novel - he starts right from the very begining by calling the 21-day old baby Mohun 'Mr. Biswas'. And the name sticks! However, the sense of pathos, gloom and pessimism that surrounds poor Indian immigrants is firmly established from the outset, never to leave the reader even during Mr. Biswas' happier days.
The full characterisation of the people orbiting around Mr. Biswas is left to the imagination of the reader, as Naipaul does not commit to paint the whole portrait of each one of them. The story, even though told by an outside narrator, is nevertheless told from Mr. Biswas' point of view. Therefore this fits Naipaul's characterisation of the 'others' as Mr. Biswas is not your deep, philosophical traditional hero. In fact, he is selfish, uncooperative, rebelious, and as some have said, a 'born loser'. Personally, I don't agree with the loser epithet - I think he is just a product of his background and of the times he is living. For each of the few descendants of indentured labourers who went on to achieve world-wide fame and wealth, there were hundreds of thousands who suffered the same fate as Mr. Biswas.
on 14 January 2002
A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS is a thoroughly enjoyable book, a family saga-type book of the style that other writers of Indian origin have subsequently written to such great effect. But Naipaul's prose marks him apart - it is not overblown, like Rushdie's, nor somehow insipid, like Vikram Seth's. It is sharp, clear, smooth and wonderfully seductive.
On top of the wonderful prose, the tale is gripping, and the story of Biswas's struggles with work and family and life and position somehow epitomise much about the legacy of colonialism and the nature of ambition and "success".
What is also interesting, and telling, are the few indications of the later racism against black people which has marred Naipaul's more recent public comments - but this should not detract from a wonderful book.
on 24 June 2006
`AHFMB' is the story of Mohun Biswas, a Trinidadian of Indian descent, and his lifelong search for a place to call his own. The book follows his life from his birth, to his early life as he searches for a career to call his own, to his marriage and life with his stifling in-laws, to his first (very belated) attempts at complete independence and finally to his death (with which the book actually begins). Mr Biswas is an everyman: not too bright, not too good-looking, not too strong, and his attempts to make a better life for himself are constantly thwarted by his own failings, and the ambition of those around him. Throughout the whole book Biswas, and all the other characters, are trying to define their roles and find a niche in the new post-colonial Trinidad.
`AHFMB' reminded me a lot of Rushdie's `Midnight's Children', both in its subject matter and its construction. There is a touch of magical realism at the beginning, with Mr Biswas' unlucky sneeze bringing disaster, and the dialogue between the Hindu characters is reminiscent of the lyrical `hinglish' often used by Indian writers. Mr Biswas' story represents a nation finding its new identity post-colonialism on many levels. Firstly, there is the lack of definition suffered by all the characters, as they struggle to find what they can achieve in post-colonial Trinidad. The characters also have more allegorical significance, such as the Tulsi's (Biswas' in-laws) representation of the old (and failing) social order, or other characters representing religious institutions or the influx of new money. `AHFMB' is a very clever observation of a society finding its roles.
The thing that made `AHFMB' such an enjoyable read, was the jaunty style in which it was written. Mr Biswas' life is actually pretty depressing on the whole, but Naipaul tells his story as a comic tale, making it an easy read, and never unduly heavy. `AHFMB' is a clever, thought provoking and easy read. It is a big book, but simply flew by as I read. Absolutely brilliant.
This book has just been and discussed at the book group of which I am a member. Everyone found something to like in it, but opinions overall differed a lot. It tells of Mr. Biswas, a Trinidadian Hindu (and from a brahmin family, so high-caste), from his birth to his death at the age of 46 (that is no spoiler - we are told of it in the first chapter). The character is based on Naipaul's father, and his son, Anand, on Naipaul himself. Mr. Biswas lives through extreme poverty and difficulty, constantly (as an adult) struggling to assert his individuality in the face of his wife's large and extended family, the Tulsis. His dream is to have his own house and he makes a number of attempts to do so, all more or less doomed until the end of the book, when he has a measure of (very qualified) success - again, we know about that right from the start.
It is a complex book. The society on which it centres, that of Indians living in Trinidad, has its own rules and standards, and I found it fascinating to read about these and see how they worked themselves out. There are constant rows, but they are also supportive and dutiful in times of crisis. Husbands beat their wives and wives their children, but this is almost like an expected ritual, and there is even some pride taken in the effectiveness of these beatings, as if they are a necessary part of family life. Families respect the 'pundit', the wise man in their midst who performs quasi-religious rituals (for example, to bless Mr. Biswas's house at one point), even to the extent that when the pundit decrees that baby Biswas has an unlucky sneeze, everyone believes him.
In the midst of all this is Mr. Biswas, usually sceptical and trying to be himself. And what is he? He can be foolish, impulsive, petulant, naive, sarcastic, rude, and negligent. About halfway through the book, he suffers what is clearly a nervous breakdown of some kind. Yet he has an enquiring mind, reads widely (Marcus Aurelius, Epictitus, Dickens and much more - he likes reading wiring diagrams and scientific manuals as well) and has a strange kind of resourceful courage that keeps him going.
There is a lot in this book. It is often amusing. When Mr. Biswas gets a job as a reporter for the Port of Spain Sentinel, it becomes very funny indeed (he writes grotesque sensational stories for them). Naipaul has a considerable gift for description, and many scenes in the book, fully described, are vivid. Occasionally we get an insight into the extreme poverty endured by some of the characters. There is a wide range of interesting characters - Shama, Mr. Biswas's wife, Mrs. Tulsi, Tara his wealthy aunt, Seth, the character known as W.C. Tuttle because he has a large collection of book by that author (who wrote Westerns featuring Hashknife Hartley and Sleepy Stevens), Owad, the 'young god' who goes to England and comes back with medical training and an absurd degree of self-importance, and others.
As the book moves on, and especially in the final 100 pages or so, the mood changes and it becomes reflective and almost elegaic. Mr. Biswas (movingly) remembers his mother's kindness to him - he has thought little about her as an adult ; his work obliges him to visit the destitute people of Port of Spain and the surrounding area ; the family has a happy holiday at the beach ; Anand faces the trials of the exhibition exam., which may give him opportunity for further study after school ; they get a new Ford Prefect and delight in it ; and Mr. Biswas becomes aware that he is a grown man, the head of a family of young people, no longer children, who will branch out in their own way. His relationship with his wife, always complex and ambivalent, becomes more clearly defined, and his death, when it comes, is beautifully and very movingly handled in an understated way.
... and I could go on. This is a 'big' book in its scope and range, and an unusual one. It has been much praised, as has its Nobel-prize-winning author. I took great pleasure in reading it and found it stimulating, thought-provoking and involving, and that seems good enough reason for giving it five stars.
on 9 January 2003
It's very rare that you find a book that makes you laugh out loud - and so it's worth treasuring it when you do find one. Mr Biswas is a tragi-comic character who by rights should be up there with Reggie Perrin. His attempts to break free from the sprawling Tulsi family and his desire to make a place for himself in the world make for a sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious conflict. Naipaul's style is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in its warmth and magic, while the book is a comfortable and enjoyable read.
on 24 July 2011
VS Naipaul is dear to my heart as he is a Trinidadian and I am part Trinidadian. To me this is his best work as it combines the genres of novel writing and memoir writing. A house for Mr Biswas is often interpreted as the biography of Naipaul's father but it can just be read without making that connection if you are not familiar with Naipaul's life and work. This will also appeal to anybody who has links to Trinidad or indeed anyone who is interested in Trinidad or West Indian culture.
on 10 October 2001
Mr Biswas is an unlikely hero, dyspeptic, disappointed - and doomed. From page one, we know that he will die in his house on Sikkim Street aged 46, father of four children with a precise inventory of furniture around him and his Ford Prefect car on the lot outside.
The novel is a continuing reiteration of his need to find a job, transport, a house and a family. He has moments of success - when he writes his prose poem, when he is employed as a journalist and later as a welfare worker - but the novel is a sprawling account of his failures and his inability to deal with them. He is a man determined to rebel caught up in the domesticity and social system of his people. And the book is difficult to put down.
It is composed of a series of episodes which gradually move the plot forward through repetition of incidents, the insidious grasp of the Tulsi family and the economics of Trinidad. The Second World War and the rise of Communism are incidental to the action but woven into it. It is as if the same picture were being presented over and over with minute alterations which nonetheless define the progress of the narrative.
Even as a tiny baby, our hero is 'Mr Biswas', overshadowed by the predictions of a 'pundit' at his birth. He makes his discoveries and takes steps forward which are often false and deflate his ambitions but this is largely a comic tale written with skill and, despite its sprawl, encapsulated in the Prologue and Epilogue which act as a framing device.
Comparisons with other writers of Asian origin such as Salman Rushdie (Midnight's Children) and Vikram Seth (A Suitable Boy) are possible but the style also reflects the approach of Dickens and Anthony Burgess (eg Earthly Powers).
All in all, a good read leaving behind a rueful smile and a nod of recognition about the human condition.
on 22 August 2001
Mr Biswas'passive aggressive behaviour, peppered with occasional, unexpected outbursts is almost aspirational. In him V S Naipaul has created an impressive blend of a refusal to compromise, qualified by an underlying desire to conform to group dynamics. Mr Biswas is the classic example of a man conspired against by time and circumstance, struggling to straddle the gap between his lowly position in society (and, indeed, his family) and his high-minded aspirations. V S Naipaul renders his tribulations as infused with a natural humour, mirroring the reality of paranoid outcasts everywhere. This book is a must for anyone who has ever felt they deserve better!
on 8 February 2003
A House for Mr Biswas is only the second book I have read of VS Naipaul. I started reading VS Naipaul's books only because of the relationship between Paul Theroux and VS Naipaul. I am very keen on Paul Theroux's travel writing.
It is a humorous tale, although the humour can be dark or seem pessimistic. But I think it is a tale that is believable. The thing that I find most frustrating about this book is that there seems to be very little characterisation. What I mean is that I don't feel that I know any of the people at all well. They are simply names on the page and they are mentioned many or few times in the story, depending on their closeness to Mr Biswas. I have no idea what they feel, or what their motives are - we see it all through Mr Biswas' eyes, and it always seems to be a superficial impression. The best (or worst) example of this is Mr Biswas' wife, about whom I feel I still know next to nothing. Having said that, Mr Biswas does not seem to have much of a relationship with his wife, other than being the father of her children. I don't think Mr Biswas is a likeable character, but nonetheless I find myself sympathising with him.
I do recommend this book.
on 4 August 2010
It took me a little while to get into this book, but after the first 100 pages I was thoroughly hooked.
Naipaul tells the life story of Mohun Biswas, a Hindu Indo-Trinidadian living in Trinidad in the first half of the 20th century. .I should also mention here that the book is said to draw from the real life story of Naipaul's father.
Right from the first sentence of the book we know that Mr Biswas will die, at a reasonably young age, and we are introduced to him in his last days. However, this is just for a brief time, and soon the story starts from the beginning of Mr Biswas' life, where we discover that he was considered to be an unlucky child right from the start.
As he grows up, he leads an increasingly haphazard and unfortunate life. However, his misfortune is not the overblown, dramatic tragedy of multiple and untimely deaths of loved ones (though there are one or two), horrible accidents, and grievous bodily harm, etc. Instead, his life is blighted by the more subtle dissatisfactions of not quite knowing who you are, not really being happy what you are doing, falling into a family life that does not quite please you and so on. His focus throughout all this becomes his goal of having a house of his own, instead of having to share a living space with his in-laws, the Tulsis, who are a large and rather difficult family to live with. All this is set against the backdrop of changing times in Trinidad - the gradual loss and/ or homogenisation of the Hindu and Indian culture that Indo-Trinidadians brought over from their ancestral land, the increasing need for better education in order to get by in life, the growing number of people sending their children to study or work abroad, etc.
I found Naipaul's rendering of Mr Biswas and to be affectionate and sympathetic without being sentimental. Although Mohun is often stubborn, argumentative and rather morose, I found myself really rooting for him as he has a sort of dogged determination to make something of himself, and he does seem pretty mistreated by his in-laws. At the start of the book in fact, I felt that the Tulsi family were really quite nasty people. However, after time goes by I began to see that the way they behave is mostly without malice - it's just the way they interact with family members. And then I appreciated even more the insightful way in which Naipaul portrays family life. After all, in most families, there are no real "baddies", just many people with conflicting needs, desires and regrets.
Mr Biswas does find some satisfaction in his life, so it is not all doom and gloom, and he does also end up with a more tender bond with his close family (his wife and children). Their arguments soon become more like habit, and even have a slight feeling of affection in them.
I think this book does suffer a little from being labelled as a comedy, as some people seem to expect it to be a lot more obviously funny than it is, and are thus disappointed. It is darkly funny, but the humour is more subtle than the tagline "his immortal comic masterpiece" suggests. In my opinion, most of the humour comes from the portrayal of Mr Biswas as a somewhat cantankerous young (and later middle aged) man who gets thrown into all sorts of awkward situations (sometimes through his own mistakes) and seems to muddle through life with lofty ambitions and a feeling of being rather hard done-by. He is also quite a sardonic individual and delights in thinking up not-so-complimentary nicknames for various family members, and in making jokes about his circumstances.
It is perhaps more satisfying to think of this book as a fantastic social commentary, and a brilliant evocation of life in an Hindu extended family in post-colonial Trinidad, with just a mild touch of dark humour and a deeply personal look into the mind of the character of Mohun Biswas. There is a lot of dissatisfaction, a bit of misery, and several illuminating flashes of hope and joy. Overall, the story is deeply involving, and you will be completely absorbed by Mr Biswas' life.