There were times when I felt that I would never finish V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas. It wouldn’t be the worst novel I could imagine getting stuck in. In fact, I kind of liked Mr. Biswas.
The fact that I actually did enjoy it came as a surprise. Three summers ago I read A Bend in the River - also about Indian emigrants – and did not particularly care for it. There wasn’t anything specific that I didn’t like – it just did not resonate at all for me, and there wasn’t anything in particular that stood out. Biswas, however, was a delight - the complete opposite of A Bend in the River. The voice of the novel – distant yet engaged – was unique, the characters unforgettable, the entire 500+ pages – charming.
Poor Mr. Biswas could have been the mantra of this tragicomic clunker. After a sad beginning (his father drowns in a lake while trying to save Biswas – even though Biswas wasn’t in the lake – Biswas gets sucked into marriage to one of the Tulsi clan. And the Tulsi’s are a clan if I ever saw one. All Biswas wants is to get out from under the economic dependence on his in-laws and have a house of his own. And through many trials and tribulations, he finally does. It ends sadly for Mr. Biswas – we know within the first few pages that he does get his house, but dies shortly after – the story is essentially humorous, and only tragic when you are able to sit back and look at the bigger picture. Sort of like a Michael Moore documentary.
Mr. Biswas is sometimes belligerent, sometimes abusive, sometimes silly, a lot ridiculous. The guy writes a column for a newspaper called Deserving Destitutes, for goodness sakes. The give and take between him and his long-suffering wife is hilarious, sad, but they are clearly meant for each other. You are rooting for him against her family, but you have to love Shama despite the fact that she is a Tulsi. Except when she throws out the doll house. That’s when I didn’t love her. But oh well. They got over it, and so did i. There is also genuine affection between Mr. Biswas and his son, though the relationship becomes distant when Anand moves to England. Thinking about this group of characters, I feel genuine affection for them. And it’s rare that I come out of a novel feeling like that. The only other example that pops into my mind is the Finch family, though I’m sure there are others. The Joads as well.
In the end, A House for Mr. Biswas has left me confused about Naipaul. A number of his other novels, including The Enigma of Arrival show up on other lists, and even outside of my OCD-list obsession, I am sure to encounter him again in the coming decades. On one end of the Naipaul spectrum we have one novel considered to be his best, which I enjoyed and wouldn’t mind reading more like it. On the other end, the other contender for Naipaul’s best – a novel that left me lukewarm at best, just one of the crowd of many, many novels I feel indifferent about. So, I don’t know what to think, or what to expect. I suppose we’ll see – and maybe I’ll be surprised again.