Friday, 1 September 2000

V.S. Naipaul: A House for Mr Biswas (1961)

Edition: Andre Deutsch, 1961
Review number: 593

Like A Bend in the River, a large part of A House for Mr Biswas is about the search for roots in the post-colonial world. Mohun Biswas spends his entire life looking for a place to live which feels like his own, something which is already complicated by his place in the large Indian community in Trinidad. He is poor but of high caste, and this gives him strange relationships with the people around him, especially when he marries into the Tulsi family, rich but of low caste and trying not to become impoverished by the provision of dowries for fourteen daughters.

Mohun Biswas is a misfit by personality, uncomfortable in the presence of others, either desperate to impress or deliberately unpleasant as prompted by his own insecurities. His social interactions are frequently acutely embarrassing, to the reader as well as to those he meets and himself. He has to deal with the guilt of having caused the death of his father (who drowned trying to save him from trouble in a river when he had just wandered away), but this guilt is never explicitly mentioned. This is a clever touch by Naipaul; the drowning is one of the most dramatic episodes in the novel, and remains in the reader's mind; but not mentioning it ensures that it stays in the background, and almost unconsciously helps us to understand Mr Biswas.

Mohun Biswas must be one of the most rounded characters in all of modern fiction. He may be infuriating at times (though the Tulsi family give him a lot to put up with); he may consistently fail to realise his dreams (even the house he buys, in the end, turns out to be something of a confidence trick); but at the end of the novel, the reader feels that s/he knows and understands him.

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