A House for Mr. Biswas, V.S. Naipaul 1961

Judged by many to be the Nobel Prize winning V. S. Naipaul’s best novel, the book begins with Mr. Muhon Biswas’ birth and ends 41 years later with his death.  Along the way, we live through the challenges and tragedies of the Indian immigrant community in Trinidad from the years after WWI to those after WWII.  Biswas is born into poverty and spends his life trying to buy a house, the symbol of emergence from that grinding poverty.  The quest for the eponymous house takes us through his various abodes including Hanuman House, The Chase, Green Vale, Shorthills, the Tulsi house in Port of Spain and finally the 2 story, cock-eyed and ramshackle home where he dies on Sikkim Street.  His marriage into the large and better off Tulsi family fails to help and only accentuates his lack of a home and his second class status.  “The past could not be ignored; it was never counterfeit; he carried it within himself.  If there was a place for him, it was one that had already been hollowed out by time, by everything he had lived through, however imperfect, makeshift, and cheating.”  In his various jobs as an apprentice to a Hindu priest, a sign painter, a sugar cane field driver, a small shop owner, a newspaper reporter and then columnist, and a civil servant, Biswas never felt honored or was able to make enough money to climb out of debt.  The themes of belonging and the powerlessness of the outsider, the poor, the ‘insignificant’ are a part of Naipual’s life story.  He came from an Indian immigrant family in Trinidad where his father was a newspaper reporter,  and though he went to Oxford as a scholarship student, he never felt a part of that life and always considered himself  an outsider.  The details of the immigrant, literally and figuratively homeless if not houseless, are Naipaul’s strength in this large, sweeping book.  A classic.

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