A House for Mr. Biswas
by V.S. Naipaul
Time 100 Novels, Modern Library #72, Guardian 1000 Novels
The most interesting thing about A House for Mr. Biswas is how ostensibly uninteresting it is. Mohun Biswas is born in Trinidad, marries into the Tulsi family, holds a series of jobs, has four kids, and ultimately (not a spoiler, as it's revealed in the first few pages) - buys a house and dies at the age of 46. The protagonist himself isn't a remarkable man. He's sometimes a clown, sometimes an intellectual, sometimes ambitious but often buffeted about by stronger personalities. He's not a great talent nor a man of outstanding courage and integrity. Many of the auxiliary characters in his life - head of the family Mrs. Tulsi, chosen son Owad, even Mr. Biswas's wife, son, and daughters - seem like they might be more interesting subjects for a novel. So I continually found myself asking, as I worked my way through the 576-page A House for Mr. Biswas, why did V.S. Naipaul write this book?
There's an autobiographical component to the story; apparently Mr. Biswas is based on Naipaul's father. It is interesting that Naipaul centered the story on his father (or a facsimile thereof) rather than his own life. After all, Naipaul became a famous writer and married a British woman; Mohun Biswas never even leaves Trinidad. But this connection to Trinidad is one of the keys to the story. Naipaul himself transcended Trinidad and become more of a citizen of the world, but Mohun Biswas didn't. His life's path took him from the rusticity and superstition of the country to the poverty and industry of the city. He sees the country shift, the old Hindi values and ethnic segregation dissipating, the children (even the girls!) encouraged to become educated and learn European and American ways. Mr. Biswas is on both sides and neither. He is proud of preserving some aspects of the Hindu faith and mocks the Tulsis for dabbling in Catholicism, but he is not pious and mocks the righteous. He falls in with a group of political radicals and yet has little imagination for treating his wife and female relatives as true equals. In Mr. Biswas we can see the war between the modern and traditional, the urban and pastoral, that is raging throughout Trinidad.
The honorific "Mr." is applied to Biswas' name throughout the story. The narrative voice never calls him "Mohun." This gives the character a dignity that his actions don't always merit; he can be cruel, lazy, fickle, ill-tempered, tyrannical, and even abusive. But this dignity is absolutely essential to the story. He is not a conventional hero, and the plot ostensibly has little drama, particularly since Naipaul gives away the ending in the first chapter. We see Biswas struggling to make his own way, build a career, make a family, and buy a house. These are somewhat unremarkable actions on the surface, but A House for Mr. Biswas is a reminder that all human beings have a profound struggle. And despite the title character's brief life, his lack of career success, his somewhat dubious family life, and even the ramshackle quality of his house, the novel is a happy one, with a happy ending. Towards the end of his life, his health failing, his son still overseas, Biswas' oldest daughter Savi returns and gets a job, which means the family will be able to pay off the house. "How can you not believe in God after this?" he asks in a letter. That Biswas is able to live the life he does and, at the end of it, still believe in God, still believe in miracles, is a remarkable triumph.
My father, along with my mother, raised me. His father went to college, and got an Engineering degree. He was able to do that because his father (my great-grandfather) had his own carpentry business in Medford, MA. My great-grandfather was in Medford because his father moved there from Nova Scotia. A few generations before that, my oldest record ancestor and his family made the long journey from Northern Ireland to America. I am my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, and all my ancestors; I am their biological product, but I am also the product of their decisions and ambitions, and I live the life I do because they wanted better for themselves and for subsequent generations. Mr. Biswas (and Naipaul's father) wanted the same, and the existence of A House for Mr. Biswas is a sign that that endeavor was successful, and worthwhile.