V.S. Naipaul, “Miguel Street” (1959) – This is one of Naipaul’s earlier novels, depicting life on the titular slum street in Port of Spain, capital of his native Trinidad. Slum life depictions can get real dicey, real fast, between catastrophizing and sentimentalizing and tortured oscillations between the two. Naipaul, even that early in his career, craftily avoids both. In what I suspect is a riposte to left-leaning “social” writers, he makes an apostrophe early on against those who depicts areas like Miguel Street as “just slums,” just poverty and degradation, but he doesn’t make the lives of its inhabitants out to be constant sunshine and roses. It is a fairly typical Naipaul world, perhaps a little more honest than most in that few really pretend to believe the lies everyone tells, more for amusement than for anything else. People are self-serving, but insufficiently consistent to be called truly selfish much of the time. They pursue drives that make sense in context but probably aren’t “the right play” according to someone sitting in an easy chair in London or America. They’re human, but not in the grottily sentimental way of most humanists (or the equally silly nihilistic way of most anti-humanists).
Most of “Miguel Street” is made up of little vignettes about specific inhabitants. Most of them are about dreams they have to put away, or that blow up in their faces- in the case of a man who dreams of making a living making fireworks displays, literally. They dream of glory, borrowed from afar- boxing championships, American wives, lotteries, passing exams and going away to London (which the viewpoint character, like Naipaul himself, eventually does). When the dreams collapse, as they generally do, they find themselves back with the gang on Miguel Street, not starving or in fear but poor and not doing much, or else they disappear to another island to work in obscurity. Even Hat, who serves as the voice of the neighborhood and something of a Greek chorus, commenting on all of the stories, has his moment where he comes close to going mad when he feels he’s being cheated at gambling, winds up going to jail, and when he’s gone the narrator knows it’s time to make his way out.
Here’s something I found interesting: there’s not a lot of talk about race. Trinidad is a racially divided society. Naipaul is descended from Indians brought to the islands to provide labor post-abolition, most of the rest of the population is descended from black slaves, and there’s a small remainder of white (sometimes “off-white,” like Portuguese or Middle Eastern) people with disproportionate control over resources. Other inhabitants of Miguel Street are referred to as Indian or black or Portuguese or whatever when it’s important to the story- but a lot of the time, it’s not. I’m used to narrators in slum stories informing the reader of the race of every introduced character, unless it’s assumed that most people in a given space they’re describing are one race or another. They do this because it’s central to the dynamics of the interactions. Hell, I’m reading one memoirs set in Chicago in the thirties where the narrator reports the skin shade of every black person who he comes across- and it’s germane to the story, not (or not just) a private fixation of the author. I wonder, was Trinidad just less race-obsessed than the US? I do know Naipaul deeply resented the black power movement that came to Trinidad in the sixties. Anyway! This is a good little book, well worth reading. ****’