A House for Mr Biswas – V S Naipaul
The tragedies of Sophocles explore the conundrum of whether man has free will or whether their destiny is pre-determined by the gods or fate, if you will. Even where characters seemingly make their own choices, exercising free will, their very choices merely serve to bring about the will of the gods. It struck me as I was reading Naipaul’s fourth novel, published in 1961 and set amongst the Indian Hindu community of Trinidad, that there was something Sophoclean about the tragedy of Mohun Biswas.
On that the day he was born, the local Hindu pundit announced that Biswas will be something of a curse to his family and to himself. As we see as the story unfolds, this prophecy comes to pass time after time, sometimes with tragi-comic consequences and sometimes with devastating effects. Whatever Biswas seems to do, whether consciously or subconsciously, leads to the confirmation of the fate that the gods have ordained for him.
Through this tortuous journey through the vicissitudes of fate, what keeps Biswas going is his Thatcherite aspiration to own his own property, to be the king of his own domain. We know at the start of the book that he achieved his aim, albeit his enjoyment is somewhat marred by the large debt hanging around his neck and his untimely death. The book which runs on for nearly 600 pages tells the tale of how Biswas got to the position to realise his ambitions, modest as they may be.
The book is divided into a series of chapters, focusing on the houses in which Biswas lives at various stages of his life. They are all unsatisfactory, overcrowded, ill-maintained, full of bickering relatives and the decision to move to each of one is Biswas’ attempt to solve a problem. Each so-called solution to a problem turns out to be misguided, just compounding the problem. It is only at the end that he summons up the courage, to saddle his immediate family with enormous debt, that he can achieve his ambition, albeit fleetingly. Biswas overlooks the patent deficiencies of his house, happy to call it a home of his own.
Structurally, the book follows Biswas’ life but is episodic. The major set pieces describe a day or so of his life while other passages move the story on by years. Despite the despair and ill luck, the book has moments of high comedy and makes sharp observations on the way of life of Trinidadian Indians who feel they are a cut above the indigenous population. Many of the people who flit in and out of the narrative are roguish, untrustworthy, on the make. Biswas, one of life’s naïve characters, falls for their wiles, driven by his desire to improve his station in life.
It is hard to describe Biswas as a sympathetic character. He is selfish and argumentative and engages in subterfuge. Sometimes he wins, often he comes off second best. His principal antagonists are his mother-in-law, Mrs Tulsi, and her brother-in-law, Seth ,and life in the Tulsi household is a series of shifting, impermanent alliances and feuds. Biswas finds solace in the works of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus – the irony, of course, is that if he had adopted a more stoic frame of mind, then life would have been more bearable.
The other source of comfort is in possessions. Each move is accompanied by a detailed list of possessions Biswas can truly call his own and through the book it grows. Battered and ill-made they may be, but they are his. The book is a journey of someone who, despite all the setbacks, is trying to make his mark on the world. Very funny at times, with beautiful turns of phrase and many thought-provoking asides, tedious at others and a tad overlong, it is a tale worth persevering with.