V.S. Naipaul, “A House for Mr. Biswas” (1961) – One of the hardest things to do in literature is to maintain a real satirical eye. You need both a sharp, unforgiving perspective and an ability to recognize real pathos. TV sitcoms often do the debased version of this, twenty-one minutes of intermittently-amusing cruelty with a dumb moral slapped on in the twenty-second. When it’s done right, it looks like there was no other way it could have been- that the sensitivity and the sharpness constitute each other.
This is what you see in V.S. Naipaul’s breakout novel. Mohun Biswas, based on Naipaul’s father, is born into the poverty and insularity of the Indians imported Trinidad by the British as cheap labor in the sugarcane fields. Caste, religion, and tradition hem him in on all sides, even as these things are all challenged and broken down by modern conditions in a place thousands of miles away from where they were originally developed. A pundit decides he’s bad luck when he’s born, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. His parents and community treat him as bad luck, which helps make him feckless, resentful, and dishonest, which in turn lead to disasters like the death of his father. It’s a hard life.
Mr. Biswas (as he’s referred to throughout) is a character you could call “Berard Complete”- fully realized without being tediously fleshed out in the manner of bourgeois character development. He has ambitions most of us would recognize as valid. More than anything, he wants to be independent, to escape from a world that is, shall we say, overdetermined. Buying or building his own house symbolizes that commitment, and it takes the whole book, over five hundred pages, to finally land one for him to die in. But he’s also something of a prick. He’s not the martyr-saint of so many stories about a man at odds with society. His fecklessness, his dishonesty, his resentments feel as real as his yearning to leave his predicament.
His predicament is symbolized by the Tulsis, the family which he marries into and the house in which they, and for a while he, live. They are a sprawling, matriarchal clan dedicated seemingly solely to reproducing itself, complete with immune system of shaming, shunning, and bribery to keep potentially restive cells of the body, like Mr. Biswas, in line. Along with symbolizing the stasis of the Hindu community in Trinidad (a controversial enough thesis), the Tulsis also represent Naipaul’s longstanding issues with women. But Naipaul’s satiric eye doesn’t fail him- Mr. Biswas may complain about his wife Shama, and her family trapping him, but he’s depicted as at least as responsible for his own status as they are, and probably more. The thing with living under various kinds of oppression, Naipaul reminds us, is that it doesn’t make us into saints or superheroes. It more often makes you and those around you a mess.
Insights like these are one of the reasons Naipaul was such a controversial figure in the liberationist 1960s when he came to literary fame. His ideas about women are what brought him his last major controversy before he died this year. But Naipaul’s satirical eye really did range everywhere, though he was soft on the English Tories who propelled his career and could probably have used it. To use a cliche, he was an equal-opportunity hater. In no wise was this more true of himself and his family. He loved his father, by every account. One of those accounts is in the book: the relationship between Mr. Biswas and the character of Anand, based presumably on Naipaul himself and something of a swotty little shit. But like Mr. Biswas, he consumes his father- in this case, using his struggles (including struggles to become a writer) as fuel for his escape from Trinidad into literary glory. He never flinched, or said he didn’t, or indicated regret. He saw what he saw, whether imagined or not, and said it, as well and as clearly as he could. When it worked, it worked spectacularly. *****