A House for Mr. Biswas ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Trinidad is a small island off the coast of Venezuela. Tobago is an even smaller island to the northeast of Trinidad. The two together make the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost island country in the Caribbean. V. S. Naipaul was a Trinidadian and Tobagonian British writer of works of fiction and nonfiction in English who lived from 1932 to 2018. His 1961 novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, was the first of his many books that brought him international acclaim as a writer. It ranks number 78 on the Modern Library’s List of the Hundred Greatest Novels in English of the Twentieth Century.
Mohun Biswas is the “everyman” protagonist of A House for Mr. Biswas. He is the son of immigrant parents from India, a Hindu, living in the Caribbean country of Trinidad. Mr. Biswas (the title by which he is known throughout the novel) is a the “little man,” the “one against the world.” A House for Mr. Biswas is the story of his unspectacular life. We are told on the very first page of the novel that he dies in his mid-forties. He marries Shama, a woman from a family of many daughters. It is a strictly matriarchal family, dominated by Shama’s mother, Mrs. Tulsi. He doesn’t like being dominated by his wife’s family, but he doesn’t seem to be able to help it. He and Shama never seem to care very much for each other, never seem to share any kind of an emotional bond, but they have four children, one boy and three girls.
Not being particularly well-educated, smart or competent, Mr. Biswas seems to have trouble making a meager living for himself and his family. He manages a “rum shop,” works as a sign-painter, and works in his wife’s family’s store, which seems to be kind of “everything” store. His main ambition in life is to be independent (from his wife’s family and from anybody else) and to have his own home that belongs to him and nobody else. About midway through the novel he undertakes to have his own house built by an anything-but-reliable builder, but it doesn’t go well, and his unfinished house is destroyed in a storm. In the second half of the novel, he gets a job as a journalist for a small newspaper, where he writes a column about “deserving destitutes.” This is a step-up for him, where he makes about $150 a month, and he eventually he owns his own car, but still lives by his wife’s family’s dictates (especially his wife’s mother) in a house they own.
Despite its length (568 pages) and exotic setting, A House for Mr. Biswas isn’t difficult to read. It’s in clear, concise, easy-to-understand English. There are no tangled sentences, no tortured descriptive passages. There are lots of character names, though, sometimes difficult to remember and keep straight because many of them are similar (Shama, Sharma, Savi, Chinta, etc.). This is a minor quibble, though, and no reason not to read the book. For American readers, A House for Mr. Biswas is a glimpse at a life in another country, on another continent, in another culture. If you think life is difficult for you, consider the life of Mr. Mohun Biswas.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp