Wednesday, October 12, 2011

#72- A House for Mr. Biswas

Hi there! My, don’t you look lovely.

The first thing that I heard about this book (besides that it was #72 on the Modern Library List) was from my Post-Colonial Literature professor, who told the class not to worry about the book being 560 some-odd pages, because “it goes fast”. I will admit that the novel does go fast, but not in the way that people usually mean when they use that descriptor. It covers an approximately forty-five year span, and in those forty-five years Mr. Biswas is born in rural Trinidad (backwards, significantly enough), loses his sixth finger, goes to grammar school that clings tenuously to the British colonial system, meets a girl in a shop, marries her and by doing so tethers himself to her massive, domineering family (think the in-law stereotype TO THE MAX), has four children, becomes a journalist, finally buys a house, and dies. To be fair, that is the extremely boiled-down summary, leaving out the rich complexities of the relationships between Mr. Biswas and his fantastically sassy wife (Going to buy you that gold brooch, girl! is his refrain. I suppose it would look nice in my coffin, she answers. Great stuff.) his son, upon whom he lives vicariously, his brother-in-law Owad, the favored child sent to Cambridge, and various co-workers and family members he attempts to stand up to. It is perhaps Ms. Biswas’ most notable characteristic that he does stand up for himself and fail- he can’t even manage to stand up.

V.S. Naipaul’s writing is, in a word, spare. ‘Spare’ seems a strange descriptor for a book as long as this one, but for all the richness of the details, the reader’s access to the characters’ thoughts and feelings is limited. I have known readers to find this frustrating, but I loved it. Just as the smallest actions and most seemingly insignificant words can unpack a world of knowledge about a person in real life, the slightest movement or most passing word can illuminate complexities of character that explication explanation just couldn’t.
‘In a few years you will look back on this and laugh,’ Mr. Biswas said. ‘You did your best. And no true effort is ever waste. Remember that.’
‘What about you?’ Anand asked.
And though they slept on the same bed, neither spoke to the other for the rest of the evening.

See what I mean? The weight of Anand’s question, and the silence that follows it, are so potent, so bursting with significance, with really powerful, enigmatic energy. Is “What about you” meant to hurt, or is it genuine? Is the silence reflective, or tense with anger? The language, so unburdened by clunky excess, is open for all kinds of interpretations.

At its heart, A House for Mr. Biswas is a comic novel. The comedy ranges from the ironic and sardonical (the editor at the paper Mr. Biswas works at cares very little about facts and very much about shock value, leading Biswas to write a column which he titles “White Baby Found in Rubbish Dump In Brown Paper Parcel: Did Not Win Bonny Baby Competition”) to the silly and crude (see incident involving a great number of bananas, a handkerchief, and *ahem* human waste). It is highly critical of the culture from which the author hails, and definitely has moments that will be shocking to modern, Western readers.

On the cover of the edition, there is a blurb from Newsweek that describes the novel as “a marvelous prose epic”. I was skeptical of the use of the word “epic” at first, but it is- in a way. It is the epic tale of the journey of a bookish, unambitious, underwhelming, petty man from birth to death, that somehow manages to be a fantastic book. I definitely recommend this one.

My next book from the list will be E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. In the meantime I’ll be putting up my first “extracurricular”- a review of Bill Bryson’s memoir/chronicle of the 1950’s, The Life and Times of the Thurderbolt Kid. The Modern Librarians are taking most of the weekend off, since M. is running a marathon (best of luck to him!) but expect more reviews soon.

Thanks for being here with us.

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