A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

A House for Mr Biswas is a 1961 novel by Nobel Laureate in Literature- Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, set in Trinidad and follows the story of the protagonist, Mohun Biswas referred to as Mr Biswas in the novel. Mr Biswas is prophesied to be an unfortunate lecherous man who will bring bad luck to those around him especially when at certain occasions, he sneezes.

The novel doesn’t follow any certain storyline which is a conventional beginning, middle and end structure- it avoids to confine the vast length and breadth of its grandness to such dull and myopic boundaries.

Naipaul isn’t a man who saves his attachment for certain characters, though the novel inclines to be a description of Mr Biswas’s life but all other characters are given equal time, dedication, space and complexity which provides the novel with an exceptional sense of accuracy and artistry.

His characters are real, humanistic and gray. None of the characters arouse certain sympathies and don’t go through certain melodramatic drama that authors depict in their portrayal of village life but Mr Biswas is at times melancholic, depressed, angry, kind and bitter.

The family life is described beautifully combining all traditions and cultures, and ideologies. The minute storyline which runs through the vein of the novel is that Mr Biswas is in desperate need of his own house which is under his ownership, develops this novel into a heart rending tale of pursuit for self governance of a man damned and ostracised by his own society.

The bleakness of the third world Trinidad becomes a perfect landscape which enriches the novel to the standards of the great Victorian novels. Naipaul reminds me of Tolstoy in the way he handles his prose. Every word is balanced, subtle and calculated with realism and a depth of philosophical intellect which most writers dispossess and exchange for telling mere stories but Naipaul sets out to describe a life.

A certain side note- I being cognisant of the controversial legacy of V.S. Naipaul, find it difficult to expect that he could create a novel of such simplicity and sensitivity devoid of sex and violence.

Being an Indian, I certainly wish that Naipaul should write a novel on India because I earnestly believe that Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie are spectacular but they lack the rustic charm of Naipaul’s writing and sense of recreating reality.

In the end, there is not much tell but a lot to experience as Mr Naipaul’s writing is strictly derived from experience and unbiased precision of events without any judgement of morality or immorality but a retelling of events as they happened without adding his own commentary and letting the reality speak for itself.

Perhaps that is why the Nobel committee states:

“Naipaul is a modern philosopher carrying on the tradition that started originally with Lettres Persanes and Candide. In a vigilant style, which has been deservedly admired, he transforms rage into precision and allows events to speak with their own inherent irony.”

Indeed, Naipaul is a modern philosopher and writes with a vigorous intensity and palpable tension mixed with humour,darkness and regard for satirical irony turning brutality of humans into a distinct poetic expression of his masterful prose.

A masterpiece unlike any other.

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Hariram Saran Patwari
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