Thursday 8 September 2022

A book that starts with the ending

A House For Mr Biswas It's not often I read a book that starts at the end, tells the story, and then ends at the beginning, but this is exactly what VS Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas does. The opening reads, "Ten weeks before he died, Mr Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St James, Port of Spain, was sacked. He had been ill for some time". No need to worry about revealing any spoilers then.

Mr Biswas is blighted from birth. The unfortunate boy is "Six-fingered, and born in the wrong way". The midwife prophesies, "Whatever you do, this boy will eat up his own mother and father", his grandmother Bissoondaye "had no means of telling the time, but ... assumed that it was midnight, the inauspicious hour". Worst of all, the local Pundit warns, "The boy will be a lecher and a spendthrift. Possibly a liar as well". He advises them "to keep him away from trees and water" and predicts "He will have an unlucky sneeze". How on earth is Mr Biswas to make a success of his life carrying such superstitious baggage on his back?

The consequence of these prejudgements is that as a child, Mr Biswas is kept at home and discouraged from taking risks. Innocent and naive, he's tricked into marrying Shama, a daughter of the Tulsi family which "had some reputation among Hindus as a pious, conservative, landowning family". The truth is that they have no money, which "was news to Mr Biswas", who now realises his only escape is to buy his own house.

The book is tragi-comic rather than humorous, and Mr Biswas's trials and frustrations brought me close to tears a few times. He has a temper and is impetuous, and his treatment of his wife and children leaves much to be desired. But the more time I spent in Mr Biswas's company, the more I was rooting for him. Shama too, we're told in the Prologue, "had learned a new loyalty, to him and to their children; away from her mother and sisters, ...and to Mr Biswas this was a triumph almost as big as the acquiring of his own house".

For all the protagonist's faults, what appalled me most was the nastiness of the Tulsi family, "who had married Shama to him simply because he was of the proper caste. ...Mr Biswas had no money or position. He was expected to become a Tulsi". As a member of this new family he has to submit to a pecking order "with degrees of precedence all the way down". It's no surprise when he rebels against the widowed Tulsi matriarch, her two sons the "little Gods", and the head brother-in-law Seth.

Naipaul's writing style reminds me of Dickens, with its poverty, cruelty, larger-than-life characters and eye for descriptive detail. The opening sentence bears a resemblance to Jane Austen, factually introducing the "who" and the "where", which renders Mr Biswas life of poverty of equal importance to that of the genteel women of late 18th century England. Austen's women measure success by marriage. Mr Biswas by the possession of his own house.

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