Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
A House for Mr. Biswas
One of the great allures of fiction is its ability to transport the reader to another place. Fantasy fiction does this intentionally, of course, with made-up worlds. Even better is when it happens naturally, through a story real to the author but foreign to the reader. Number 72 on the Modern Library’s List, A House for Mr. Biswas, by V.S. Naipaul, is a great example.
The story takes place in Trinidad, and Mr. Biswas is a Trinidadian of Indian extraction (there’s an Indian subculture in Trinidad? where is Trinidad, again? and the book is written in English?). These are the circumstances of the author Mr. Naipaul as well, and the story is purported to mirror his father’s experience. To this reader, American Midwestern by upbringing, born a half-decade after the time the story takes place, and only lightly traveled, this novel presents a world completely unfamiliar in its daily details. And, it must be admitted, it is an intimidating novel from the outside. Just the name of the author, with its initials and its obvious foreignness, is intimidating. Thanks, then, go to the Modern Library for putting this rewarding book in front of this reader.
The story: Mr. Biswas marries. He is expected to live with his wife’s family and their multitudinous children, to which his own are added. He works to support his portion of the clan, and he struggles to negotiate the intricacies of the family dynamics as well as those of the working world. Meanwhile, he dreams of having a house of his own, and much of the novel involves his attempts to acquire or build one. It almost goes without saying that what makes this novel great is the skill of the author in depicting the place—the details of it, the smells and sounds, its decrepitude and its beauty, the chaotic nature of a household full of children and sparring adults, the lively streets, the frustrations and victories, the people with their fully fleshed bodies and souls. What makes it unusual is the physical traits, the way the buildings are built, the buses run, the school classes are conducted, the food is prepared, the workday unfolds, all different from a typical American life. What makes it remarkable is Mr. Biswas.
The house business does not go well. Things happen that would not happen to you or me negotiating with a contractor—wrong-colored light switch plates, for instance, or a garbage disposal that leaks only when the plumber is not present. Things go wrong for Mr. Biswas that involve the politics of his time and place and the peculiarities of the local work ethic and of the traditional family. Money, time, skill, and weather all play a role. Perhaps Mr. Biswas is not meant to have a house of his own. Why, after all, can’t he be content with what he does have? Why can’t he live in the house with the wife and her sisters and their husbands and the children like a normal person? Why does he feel compelled to pursue this elusive and unreasonable dream?
Mr. Biswas is, in the end, a familiar character. He wants something he seemingly can’t have, and though that thing might be a quite achievable desire in another time and place, in his it is not. He is an individual, an outsider in his own world, not willing to be an outsider but also not willing to give up completely on his dream. His difficulties look different but feel the same as ours. His world is exciting to us because it is new; to him it is the world he must contend with to have the life he wants, and it is a world that is, as worlds so often are, stronger than he is.
There are some novels that are interesting for their foreignness, some that are too foreign to be approachable, and some that draw us into a new place and anchor us with familiar human travails. This novel is the last. Mr. Naipaul gives us Indian Trinidad of the 1950s; Mr. Biswas gives us a person we can relate to. And The Modern Library provides yet another wonderful adventure in reading.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also an editorial assistant for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.