A House for Mr Biswas, by V.S. Naipul

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Certainly, earlier this year, when V.S. Naipul was getting a moderate amount of flack for saying horrible things about his female colleagues, I was reminded that I never had gotten around to actually reading any of his books, so I settled down with this one, albeit with the thought in mind that Naipul really didn’t like women very much.

Viewed with this preconception, it’s pretty easy to see Biswas as more than a little misogynistic. There is a very strong theme, from Mr Biswas’s marriage on, of Biswas’s persecution by more powerful women (mostly Mrs Tulsi) who despite their despotism are actually incompetent in managing their households. Shama’s character is presented less starkly, and I actually found her rather sympathetic (probably unintentionally, as Naipul seems to regard her as a loveless harridan).

Moving past the kinda distressing gender-presentation, it’s actually a pretty good experience-delivery system. Naipul’s prose is well-crafted, and he describes well a time and place alien to me: Trinidad, in the peculiar genteel poverty of a brahmin of little means. He expansively describes a spectrum of settings from remote villages to cities, and gives a good idea of the economic realities of privation punctuated by certain luxuries. As a character study I found it less appealing, since Biswas isn’t actually a terribly sympathetic character and feels more than a little bit like an unreliable narrator, prone both to overstating his own misfortunes and understating his own responsibility for them.

In all, Naipul wrote in a way I found easy to digest and quite absorbing, in spite of the fact that I was a little bit less than sold on the actual content of his writing. That speaks, I suppose, to his talent as a prose stylist.

See also: Wikipedia.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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