July Books 24) A House for Mr Biswas

24) A House for Mr Biswas, by V.S. Naipaul.

This was one of the books I bought in order to broaden my acquaintance with the Nobel Prize winners for Literature. It is a rather touching tale of Mohan Biswas, from an Indian family on Trinidad, and his quest to have his own house. There are a lot of interesting cultural and dynastic dynamics – Mr Biswas’ clever son Anand is clearly a reflection of the author in some way, so presumably Mr Biswas himself reflects Naipaul’s father. The human and physical geography of Trinidad – or at least some small parts of it – is very memorably portrayed.

I found myself dissatisfied with the book on two counts, one minor, one rather more serious. The minor point is that, after a blow-by-blow account of most of Mr Biswas’ life, the last few years are telescoped with what feels like somewhat indecent haste, which rather blunts the tragedy of his relatively early death (no spoilers here – it is foreshadowed in the first chapter).

The bigger point is that although we get most of the book from Mr Biswas’ own point of view, and most of the rest from Anand’s, almost all the women appear as incomprehensible, irrational characters. (With the exception of Mr Biswas’ boss during his brief spell as a civil servant.) I regretted that we never heard his wife’s voice clearly, and the monstrous mother-in-law presumably would have had her side of the story as well.

Still, at a time when I am struggling through Keay’s History of India, I felt that this book set half a world away gave me a much better sense of Indian culture.

One thought on “July Books 24) A House for Mr Biswas

  1. It sounds fascinating.

    I looked “human rights” up in the OED, which demonstrates that Equiano wasn’t the first person to use it, and that Wiki is even more wrong than you thought:

    1629 W. Crosse tr. Sallust Warre of Iugurth ix, in Wks. 315 Those former times delight you more then these, in which‥all diuine and human rights [L. divina et humana omnia] were in the power of some fewe.
    1690 N. Tate Pastoral Dialogue 14 Where Rome bears sway, bid Laws Divine farewell, And Human Rights t’assert, is to Rebel.
    1758 Prisoner 6 Of human rights ammerc’d, and human aid.
    1791 T. Paine Rights of Man 110 The representatives of the people of France‥considering that ignorance, neglect, or contempt of human rights, are the sole causes of public misfortunes‥have resolved to set forth‥these natural, imprescriptible, and unalienable rights.
    [Some later uses omitted]/

    I’m not sure from context if Cross is using it in quite the same sense as Equiano, but Tate seems to be.

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