Lively, funny and malicious, Naipaul’s 1961 novel is the story of a man who claws his way free of abject poverty, fighting his in-laws at every turn. It’s an ecstatic evocation of Caribbean life, Teju Cole writes in this article for London’s Guardian.
House for Mr Biswas is episodic and packed with conflict. Mr Biswas subverts heroic convention: he is smart and funny, but also often petulant, mean and unsympathetic. His enemies, who are mostly his relatives, are largely unlikable, but they also have their admirable moments. The narrative of the novel is propelled by a clear goal – the acquisition of the titular house – which, it becomes apparent, can only be achieved by the most exhaustively circuitous route. It is a novel of epic length, formal perfection, and contains two notable peculiarities: its setting, which, being domestic, is unusual for an epic; and its geographical location, Trinidad, an important island in the Caribbean but not a particularly influential one on the world stage. And yet, this severely delimited context gave VS Naipaul an entire world of experience and feeling on which to draw. A House for Mr Biswas, published in 1961, is one of the imperishable novels of the 20th century.
From his birth until his untimely death 46 years later, Mr Biswas mostly lives in a series of houses that either do not belong to him or are houses unworthy of the name. Each of these houses is for Mr Biswas an attempt at solving a problem, and each is a wrong answer in a different way. Mr Biswas is like a figure out of myth – and indeed his birth is attended by negative portents and dour prophecies; he is declared to be “born in the wrong way”, seems doomed to live through each of these futile iterations before his destiny can be complete. The pointlessness and the wasted effort of these dead-end attempts give the novel a comic edge that links it both to picaresque and to the existentialist tradition.
Futility is the way home. In the search Mr Biswas carries his meagre possessions and his growing family along, from one unsuitable house to another, from Hanuman House to the Chase to Green Vale to Shorthills to a rental in Port of Spain. These residences are mere walls and roofs to Mr Biswas. His tragedy is not only that none of them is a house for him, but that his awareness of the poor fit is acute and constant. Most of the houses belong to his despised in-laws, the Tulsis. A couple of them are built by Mr Biswas himself, but these are swiftly undermined by their shoddiness and by elemental threat: one succumbs to flood, the other to fire. Even an expensive doll’s house he buys for his daughter Savi quickly ends up a splintered wreck. Brutal ironies dog Mr Biswas every step of the way on life’s journey, the unfairness mounts intolerably; and yet it is a funny book, too, full of jagged capers, lively malice, clever talk.
The novel opens with relief: Mr Biswas has found his house. How terrible it would have been, he thinks, to have failed in this quest, “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”. In the long search for this accommodation – the what and why having been answered in the prologue, the novel’s course is about the how – Mr Biswas finds various lesser stratagems in which he can be temporarily housed. It begins with his name: not the “Mohun Biswas” inscribed belatedly on his birth certificate by a solicitor, but the “Mr Biswas” by which we know him, right from the cradle. Mr Biswas faces many humiliations, but is rarely shorn of the modicum of dignity the honorific guarantees. The retention of this proper form of address is both comic and tense, particularly in the early sections of the novel.
In the days that followed [his birth] Mr Biswas was treated with attention and respect. His brothers and sisters were slapped if they disturbed his sleep, and the flexibility of his limbs was regarded as a matter of importance.
A schoolboy is rarely singled out from his siblings and mates in this way, much less a babe in arms. But the perpetual Mr proves a shelter for Mr Biswas. On the rare occasions at which someone calls him by his first name, there’s a slight shock to both Mr Biswas and the reader, as though at a sudden solecism. For instance, at the office of the solicitor with his mother’s sister Tara:
“Name of boy?”
“Mohun,” Tara said.
Mr Biswas became shy. He passed his tongue above his upper lip and tried to make it touch the knobby tip of his nose.
It is as though, even at a pre-school age, Mr Biswas knows that the “Mr” is a precious possession of which he should not be casually deprived.
Literature is a second form of protection. Most important are Marcus Aurelius andEpictetus, whom Mr Biswas brandishes apotropaically. Were he to actually adopt their stoic precepts, his experience of life would be different. As it is, they serve him as defensive consolation, a carapace for his irredeemably querulous nature. Mr Biswas himself nurtures the dream of literature. He writes, assembling the dream of writing from its basic building blocks, converting form into imagination. Schoolboy calligraphy becomes sign-writing. Sign-writing becomes journalism. Journalism edges towards something more lasting.
And Mr Biswas buys things, he acquires things, his wife, Shama, owns things of her own. Hemmed in by dissent and discord, given to complaint, Mr Biswas marvels at “the endurance and uncomplainingness of inanimate objects”; and these many objects, which he houses, house him too. Gradually, they increase in number and presence, and at several points in the novel, the reader is given an updated inventory of what has been acquired and by what logic. These inventories, which may bring to mind the catalogue of ships in the Iliad or the many descriptions of rooms by Dickens, are markers of Mr Biswas’s modest progress. Moving from the Chase, Mr Biswas and Shama find that they cannot move out as they had moved in, with a donkey cart.
These disregarded years had been years of acquisition … They had acquired a kitchen safe of white wood and netting. This too had been awkward to varnish and had been painted. One leg was shorter than the others and had to be propped up; now they knew without thinking that they must never lean on the safe or handle it with violence. They had acquired a hatrack, not because they possessed hats, but because it was a piece of furniture all but the very poor had.
As a result, Mr Biswas acquired a hat. And they had acquired, at Shama’s insistence, a dressingtable, the work of a craftsman, french-polished, with a large, clear mirror.
Slowly, tentatively, with appalling setbacks, Mr Biswas is no longer one of the very poor. Later, there’s a rockingchair, then a cherished Slumberking bed. (The adjective-noun compounds are a special feature of Mr Biswas’s furnishings, as though to intensify the particularity of each item.) Then comes a delicate glass cabinet, which immediately loses one of its glass doors. The final time the family moves, to the house for Mr Biswas on Sikkim Street in Port of Spain, the number of things has become impressive.
The gatherings of a lifetime: the kitchen safe (encrusted with varnish, layer after layer of it, and paint of various colours, the wire-netting broken and clogged), the yellow kitchen table, the hatrack with the futile glass and broken hooks, the rockingchair, the fourposter (dismantled and unnoticeable), Shama’s dressingtable (standing against the cab, without its mirror, with all the drawers taken out, showing the unstained, unpolished wood inside, still, after all these years, so raw, so new), the bookcase and desk, Théophile’s bookcase, the Slumberking (a pink, intimate rose on the headrest), the glass cabinet (rescued from Mrs Tulsi’s drawingroom), the destitute’s diningtable (on its back, its legs roped around, loaded with drawers and boxes), the typewriter (still a brilliant yellow, on which Mr Biswas was going to write articles for the English and American Press, on which he had written his articles for the Ideal School, the letter to the doctor): the gatherings of a lifetime for so long scattered and even unnoticed, now all together on the tray of the lorry.
These moments of inventory are among the most indelible passages in this masterwork of realism: one scarcely credits the idea that such meticulous and loving checklists could be invention. These things must have had these lives, and so they paradoxically underscore the veracity of Mr Biswas’s own experiences. But the realism of the human interactions throughout the novel is similarly irresistible. Here they all are: Mr Biswas, his mother, Bipti, his brothers and sister, his aunt, Tara, and her husband, Ajodha, his wife, Shama, his children (Savi, Anand, Myna, Kamla, appearing one by one, becoming real before our eyes, and being themselves actively drawn into the contest of life), his aggravating in-laws: Mrs Tulsi, Seth, Padma, the indulged sons of the family, the absurdly numerous daughters, their husbands, their children; and the huge cataract of secondary and tertiary characters, the innominate crowd. All are convincingly themselves, and yet all are contained in the arc of the novel, brought in to play their parts in the story of Mr Biswas’s life.
Incident, fight, rancour, subterfuge: this is Mr Biswas’s experience during the long years he lives with the Tulsis. His principal foes are his mother-in-law, Mrs Tulsi, and her brother-in-law, Seth. They hold grudges against him, and he out-grudges them. He bickers, insults, mocks. His wife, Shama, no fool, plays both sides skilfully, siding with her husband sometimes, abandoning him at other times. Some of these battles of will Mr Biswas wins, others he loses. Physical violence is commonplace: the frequent beatings the children in the extended household receive also spill over, rarely but astonishingly, into adult interaction. Pointless impasse is common. A House for Mr Biswas hums along to the interweaving tunes of these several discords. But the book is also a patient, almost ecstatic evocation, of landscape and social life in Trinidad in the first half of the 20th century. And if the human interactions are characterised by agony, the times and places – the farms, the roads, the villages, the thrumming energy of the city, the mornings, afternoons, dusks, nights – are described with profound and vigilant affection. Playing the angry and fast-moving currents of badinage against the dreamy swirl of memory, the novel’s flow is one of full-bore local savvy. One finally reads or rereads Mr Biswas for this balanced totality, this fecund complexity, for the way it brings to startling fruition in 20th‑century Trinidad the promise of the 19th‑century European novel.
Great in macrocosm, the novel is also flawless in microcosm. It contains many perfect set pieces, strewn like jewels through the book, in which the prose gleams with a kind of secret knowledge. Many are the moments of imaginative sympathy that continue to bloom in the mind long after the page is turned. One such account, of the burning of poui sticks for the rough village sport of stick-fighting, captures the way the scent of the sticks opens up in Mr Biswas a sudden seam of memory.
Another, of Mr Biswas working as a bus conductor in his youth, passing by a lone hut in the dusk, is a compressed little masterpiece of longing:
In the gloom, a boy was leaning against the hut, his hands behind him, staring at the road. He wore a vest and nothing more. The vest glowed white. In an instant the bus went by, noisy in the dark, through bush and level sugar-cane fields. Mr Biswas could not remember where the hut stood, but the picture remained: a boy leaning against an earth house that had no reason for being there, under the dark falling sky, a boy who didn’t know where the road, and that bus, went.
Against that sad obscurity, against surrender, against darkness, A House for Mr Biswas is a book for knowledge, for determination, for ragged unyielding life, a book that, over its great and complex length, shelters the one who reads it.
• Reprinted from the forthcoming Picador Classics edition of A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul (published 25 February, £10.99). To order a copy for £7.69 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.