I didn’t know much about this one going in. The opening was fetching, and I got into it almost immediately. I found it funny, sort of ahead of its time or not quite what I expected, and there were several moments where I was laughing out loud. I got a little “done” with it by the last 100 pages or so (it’s oddly long at 560 pages for an otherwise small feeling story) and so I was happy to finish it when the time came.
It’s a British novel by way of India by way of Trinidad in a lot of ways. The author is most squarely Trinidadian, educated in England, and of Indian descent, and the novel is most squarely focused on a perspective of someone not far off from the author’s perspective. Apparently the events of the novel mesh quite evenly with the VS Naipaul’s father’s biography.
The story is about a man born in India who get shuffled around so much as a child, that he grows up yearning and dreaming of a house to call his own. Through lack of agency, oafishness on his part, and various other factors, this proves quite difficult.
That said, the opening prologue tells us he does achieve these goals, purchasing a much too expensive house that is well not worth it. And then subsequently dying.
We start: “Ten weeks before he died, Mr Mouhan Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, Port of Spain, was sacked. He had been ill for some time. In less than a year he had spent more than nine week at the Colonial Hospital and convalesced at home for even longer. When the doctor advised him to take a complete rest the Trinidad Sentinel had no choice. It gave Mr Biswas three months’ notice and continued, up to the time of his death, to supply him every morning with a free copy of the paper.
Mr Biswas was forty-six, and had four children. He had no money. His wife Shama had no money. On the house in Sikkim Street Mr Biswas owed, and had been owing for four years, three thousand dollars. The interest on this, at eight per cent, came to twenty dollars a month; the ground rent was ten dollars. Two children were at school. The two older children, on whom Mr Biswas might have depended, were both abroad on scholarships.”
Let me tell you a little of where it goes from here. We dive back into his childhood, throughout which the narrator still calls even the infant, Mr Biswas, which is often hilarious. We learn of the death his father, the move to Trinidad, and the eventual marrying into the Tulsi family, who are domineering and complicated.
The novel is almost a sad farcical look at his own father’s life. It’s plays for laughs and ridiculousness, and so the heart is never quite there, but the novel is very entertaining and very good.