A House for Mr. Biswas
This lengthy chronicle of life, lodging, and labor charts one man’s difficult relationship with his in-laws; in this way, we’re given a rich — but slow moving — picture of Trinidadian culture as well.
V. S. Naipaul / Trinidadian / 1961 / 564 pages
As soon as I finished A Bend in the River, I had the feeling that V. S. Naipaul had pulled one over on me. The narrative takes the reader to the brink of disaster, but backs off well before it tips into anything that might be described as a climax. The author’s style conjured feelings of dread, fatigue, and detachment, but the causes of these sentiments were insulated from the reader due to the limited perspective of the main character. One man can only witness so many things and Naipaul was unwilling to resort to the omniscient. Warfare, for example, dominated the countryside, but in the protagonist’s city, the only evidence of this was the occasional band of soldiers marching through the streets. Political intrigue dominated the capital, but the protagonist only saw the down-ticket ramifications for local politicians. Naipaul’s point was well-taken: people live through terrible events, but no one experiences them totally. While “genocide” might occur inside the confines of a particular country, no individual experiences “genocide” per se. Rather, you experience the much more particular event of a relative’s death. When “revolution” takes place, the price of bread goes up; when an “economic recession” sets in, your neighbor loses his job. I flipped back through the book and reread a couple of passages. My first conclusion was that the novel was quite good, but subtle beyond measure. My second conclusion was that Naipaul trucks in the mundane.
In large part, the same can be said about A House for Mr. Biswas: it is good, it is subtle, it is mundane. But the resemblance stalls out quickly. For one thing, the action in Biswas is even more circumscribed than it is in River, with most of the scenes taking place in domestic settings involving a handful of family members. Due to the incredible size of the family and the rather large number of homes it flits in and out of, however, the permutations of people in rooms are endless; thus, the somewhat repetitive framework of Family Member A speaking with Family Member B turns out to be more ad libitum than ad nauseum in its flavor. Secondly, the stakes seem much lower in Biswas and this often works to the novel’s disadvantage. Much of the excitement of reading River was driven by its tension: how does a newly independent country free itself from its colonial heritage in a hopefully (but not necessarily) nonviolent manner? In Biswas, as indicated by the title, the question at hand is more modest. Will Mr. Biswas ever get a house of his own? There are obviously more layers to the picture, but this foreground sometimes struggles to drive the plot in compelling fashion.
This is especially true given the fact that Naipaul spills the beans in the prologue. Mr. Biswas is first introduced to the reader as a prematurely ill middle-aged man who is indeed reclining in one of the rooms of his very own home. The middle 500 pages of the novel then rewind to Mr. Biswas’ birth and childhood before taking us up to the point of the acquisition of the home. An epilogue closes the book with Mr. Biswas’ death. I think that this structuring of the novel deserves much consideration, not only because it forces the narration to march toward a conclusion that we’ve been introduced to ahead of time, but also because it seems to suggest that we, as readers, should suspend our anxieties about the house altogether. Occasionally authors chart out their novel’s conclusion before backfilling the story. In these instances, the narrative’s trajectory is typically so unexpected or so inventive that foreshadowing the result before the proof is acceptable; Biswas is not really one of those cases. Everything follows in fairly predictable fashion: Mr. Biswas will encounter difficulties, he will have to live in a number of subpar environments, and eventually he will acquire a house of his own. That we know ahead of time that he will die shortly after purchasing the house leaves room for some particularly cruel irony. But that is all.
Having somewhat explicitly hamstrung the plot, Naipaul draws us into familial niceties. Mr. Biswas marries a young woman from the Tulsi family, a huge landowning tribe who provides him and his new bride with a room in their mansion. He is immediately employed in the family’s business, subjected to the family’s traditions, and made dependent on the family’s earnings. It is a position he resents sorely. However, Trinidad does not appear to be an easy place to make a living and Mr. Biswas’ options are limited. He feuds with his wife and with her sisters; he is beaten by a brother-in-law after an argument; he must eat food that does not agree with him and has difficulty sleeping in the noisy and crowded mansion. The Tulsi family owns other properties — both rural and urban — and he moves his own family to and fro in an attempt to run away from crowdedness and familial tension. But other Tulsis generally follow his movements, rent a room in the new house, share the kitchen, conspire with his wife to defeat his best intentions. They are omnipresent.
In argument after argument, discussion after discussion, Naipaul uses the family members to chart out the shifting landscape of Trinidadian society in the mid-1900s. He does this with a degree of precision bordering on the scientific. Let us see what happens, he asks, when we remove one family member from the situation, but keep the others constant. Let us see how the dynamic shifts when one family member leaves for the university, then returns with a completed degree. What transpires inside the family when a new child is born? when a brother-in-law receives a promotion? when someone buys a car? How does the power in the family shift when the matriarch falls ill? In exploring the ramifications of these permutations, Naipaul tracks at the most intimate level the tensions between Hinduism and Christianity, between rural and urban environments, and between the educated and the laborer. He captures Trinidad at a time where the lingering vestiges of the caste system were passing from the collective memory of the Indian immigrant community, when American influence in Trinidad was heating up, and when the post-WWII spread of Communism threatened well-established political orders. Just as the characters in Mann’s The Magic Mountain each represented a political state or a philosophical perspective, so too do the characters in the Tulsi house represent these many faces of post-colonial Trinidad. While the culture in which the house is situated shifts and sways, the relationships between the members of the house change as well.
The symbolic utility of Mr. Biswas as a character is, however, fairly difficult to sort out. He is not a sympathetic protagonist and his motives often seem materialistic and petty. While we eventually begin to commiserate with his unfortunate position, the fact that Naipaul kills him off prematurely robs the novel’s conclusion of its potential catharsis. Mr. Biswas leaves his family with a huge financial burden and, through his behavior, has ostracized them from the vast infrastructural support of the Tulsi family. At the same time, though, the Tulsi family hemorrhages its members throughout the last 200 pages of the novel; by the story’s conclusion, the Tulsi mansion is a mere husk of its former self. The more capable members of the family have become doctors and movie theater proprietors and moved to different areas of the country. Additionally, Mr. Biswas’ children seem to have much brighter futures. His eldest son is studying at a university overseas and his eldest daughter’s occupation pays much better than her father’s ever did. If the complexity and diversity of the Tulsi family was a microcosm for transitional Trinidad more broadly, then breaking out of it by acquiring a house of his own literally and figuratively killed Mr. Biswas. On the other side of the transition, perhaps, the message is more optimistic. It is difficult to say.
V. S. Naipaul made his reputation on realistically depicting the immense complexity underlining post-colonial transitions in newly independent countries. While A House for Mr. Biswas is not as concise as A Bend in the River, it is certainly richer and more intricate. If pressed, though, I would probably direct interested parties toward the latter.
Rating: 6 / 10