The Novels of V.S. Naipaul
Mr. Naipaul is of Hindu Indian descent. He is third generation from a family settled in the Caribbean. He was born in Trinidad in 1932. The Caribbean has been a colony of both Spain and England. He has traveled to India to search for his roots. He started his travels away from his birthplace when he attended Oxford at the young age of seventeen years old. Naipaul’s work both fiction and nonfiction generally takes into account identity crisis as a postcolonial phenomena stemming from colonized people and how their since of identity and security is affected.
General Discussion of Naipaul’s Writings
V.S. Naipaul’s novel in particular A House for Mr. Biswas which won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature is a joy to read. We learn Mr. Biswas yearns for a home of his own. We learn in detail his life story so that we have more information to try to understand why he has this yearning. We also learn about ourselves and some universal characteristics of human nature of the need for belonging . . . somewhere . . . in which to center our own personal identity. A House for Mr. Biswas.
The Mystic Masseur is his first book and was published in 1957. Mimicry is the main theme when his protagonist, a masseur from Trinidad, successfully emulates the Hollywood mystique and becomes a celebrity guru which is, of course, a jumping board for into politics. One may smile here but there is a serious side as Sachs (1982) explains, “The restive person first pursues liberation through conformity. Reality draw from Western example prompts mimicry.” The main character is Ganesh Ramsumair is a Trinidian of whom Brawer (2002) says, “It sounds like a racket, but the naive, sincere, and rather innocent Ganesh isn't really out to con-a fact that only makes the whole thing funnier.”
The theme of mimicry is again addressed in the novel The Mimic Men.
Mishra (2002) addresses the concept of liminality “understood in a broad sense to mean the incompleteness of historical representation and the restrained view of reality” in the book review of The Writer and the World by V.S. Naipaul. Mishra’s (2002) review is positive concerning the way Naipaul addresses his experience of the world within the confines of his Hindu family (in Trinidad) by linking them to his global political and cultural experiences in terms of his personal identity crisis.
Roldan-Santiago (2008) has an interesting analysis of the spectrum of Naipaul’s negativity (“pessimism”) and slow-destruction (“dissolution”) in terms of philosophy
“The philosophic notion of nothingness and dissolution has permeated most of Naipaul’s writings beginning with his Trinidadian novels, especially The Middle Passage. This view has also developed further in some of Naipaul’s middle works such as Mr. Stone and the Knight’s Companion, The Mimic Men, and In a Free State, and in his later works such as A Bend in the River and The Enigma of Arrival. I prefer to call this a philosophic strand because the underlying currents and ideas can be classified as a variation of existentialist thought, perhaps post-1950s, that is, the ongoing existentialist thought to the present, especially as it pertains to post-coloniality.”
Naipaul’s writing is generally addressed from the common points of identity crisis
caused initially by colonialism and then by living in a post-colonial world. Roldan-Santiago (2008) adds into the discussion the use of nausea as a metaphor of disgust for the world around the protagonist (and/or the author).
In his characters one finds the same underlying theme of “dispossession and finding home. The first story of In a Free State is about an Indian man servant who travels to Washington, D.C. with his Indian employer only to enter into the complexities of personal identity and his bureaucratic identity in a foreign country. Salim, the narrator of A Bend in the River is an Indian Muslim living in a fictions new African nation where he faces the unavoidable task of identifying self in a nation that hardly knows what identity to take on – the traditional Africa or the colonial past. The Enigma of Arrival is a novel and also a memoir as Mr. Naipaul deals with a variety characters with which he reflects his own feelings of being an “outsider.
A Closer Look at A House for Mr. Biswas
A person from a loving closely knit family might not understand that others can experience an identity crisis adrift from ‘home’ although they may be married with a family of their own. But that is the state-of-mind in which we find our sympathetic main character, Mr. Biswas.
This ‘state-of-mind’ may become more obvious to people living in urban areas where homeless people can be seen looking for work or food. Or on cold winter nights when the homeless can be found looking for a warm grate to sleep over. As the state of homelessness becomes more evident in everyday lives and for everyday people the search for identity as presented in the novel is given a whole new perspective.
Homelessness and up-rootedness is prevalent in many forms in our contemporary times which makes V.S. Naipaul’s novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, ever more relevant.
So many circumstances can cause a feeling of identity crisis or confusion in a person. Someone born into and growing up with their biological parents may have no sense of place in the family or the family home. On the other hand an adopted child can feel comfortable and grow up self-assured about their identity within the family and within the world.
The former happened to Mr. Biswas due to the cruelties he underwent as a child and the expectation that he was not a fortunate person; not someone you would want to spend time with – especially near water. (Naipaul 1961). Mr. Biswas was born and died in Trinidad after searching for a home for himself in a small radius of distance: born in a tiny village and ending up in Port-au-Prince as a journalist. His character is compared to Naipaul’s father although Naipaul (2003) emphasizes that his father is an “accomplished” writer unlike the character in the book.
Now circumstances as much as origin can thrust a person into a search for home – both practically and figuratively speaking. The most noticeable of this phenomena being the millions of people in the world living without a roof over the heads, whether it is on the streets of North America or a refugee camp in Somalia.
Other examples that lend relevance to the subject of homelessness include the forced immigration of American children born to parents without legal papers. Instances of young adults being sent back to their parents’ homeland have been reported, although the children have never been there (IRIN 2011). Europe has been undergoing a surge of migration for many years due to the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan and the bad, dangerous conditions in northern Africa (Syngoros 2011). Also one could give as an example the young returning from fighting wars into a different world of nightmares and no job (AP 2011).
Mr. Biswas was a victim of domestic warfare, war against his body and war against his being from within his own family. Although the first 21 days or so of his life were filled with positive attentions and careful massages with coconut oil in the Hindu custom; after those first 21 days the massages dwindled to none and he seemed to be a forgotten child inside a busy household. The family, neighbors and even strangers felt at ease in assaulting his being because the physic had foretold of his bad character.
So growing up for Mr. Biswas was a journey of searching for the “freedom of existential being” (Roldan-Santiago 2008) in contrast to the feeling of “now I’m home.” Mr. Naipaul has often discussed his need to leave his home in the Caribbean to search for his roots to try to find a sense of belonging.
“The kitchen safe.” (Naipaul 3)* Three words, no verb yet followed with a period as if it were a complete sentence. The author, Mr. Naipaul shares many clues to what the text will reveal about Mr. Biswas, his life, his house in the following paragraph.
“The kitchen safe. That was more than twenty years old. Shortly after his marriage he had bought it, white and new, from the carpenter at Arwacas, the netting unpainted, the wood still odorous; then, and for some time afterwards, sawdust stuck to your hand when you passed it along the shelves. How often he had stained and varnished it! And painted it too.” (Naipaul 3).
A kitchen safe. A safe is a place to keep special and precious objects secure. Mr. Biswas paints and cares for this kitchen safe in a way that could be interpreted as nurturing a part of his wounded soul which needed patching and painting.
A safe kitchen. Switch the two words around to bring a flood of flavorful smells into one’s memory. The memories may be real or the memories may be imagined but either way
*I have noted the page numbers for some references to the novel but the version I read is from the computer and is not necessarily paginated the same as any other version.
they can be comforting and bring a moment of secure feeling to someone who needs to rebuild or to build an identity.
Following is a description of a house in need of an identity . . . or perhaps how couples shore-up each other’s vision to give their marriage an identity. This house (the last house and the house in which Mr. Biswas dies) is always referred to in the book as Mr. Biswas’ house. Does that mean Shama was homeless?
“The very day the house was bought they began to see flaws in it. The staircase was dangerous; the upper floor sagged; there was no back door; most of the windows didn’t close; one door could not open; the celotex panels under the eaves had fallen out and left gaps between which bats could enter the attic. They discussed these things as calmly as they could and took care not to express their disappointment openly. And it was astonishing how quickly this disappointment had faded, how quickly they had accommodated themselves to every peculiarity and awkwardness of the house. And once that had happened their eyes ceased to be critical, and the house became simply their house.” (Naipaul 3)
Mr. Biswas’ wife becomes his accomplice in ignoring the defects of the house and without any discussion joins him in silence on the subject. Without complaint she has accepted the house. Contrast her reaction above to that Mr. Biswas observes after Shama has left him to live with the children at her mother’s house (Naipaul 93).
Now we can think about another version of homelessness. Shama has a place to go if she and her husband argue. She can return to her childhood home but that is not her home either. It is the home of her mother.
Would a person like Shama, Mr. Biswas’ wife be better able to handle homelessness because she grew up in a strong family? Did she support Mr. Biswas in his search for a house because she felt the same need?
Always we find in Naipaul’s novels of lingering longing for a solid identity and a place to call home.
We continue for a moment the discussion of Shama in our conclusion because of the recentness of a quote from Mr. Naipual as well as how it informs the author and his writings. Mr. Naipaul claims he does not regard women as equal to men and has recently been quoted as saying, "And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too." (Choudhury 2007; Fallon 2011). So perhaps Shama isn’t really such a clearly defined character but really a reflection of what the author believes is a woman’s place in the man’s house. So this may be why we see her agree, without discussion or comment to accept the home with its faults and oddities.
Thomas Paine’s London speech on Agrarian Justice (Paine 1920) would have been pleasing to Mr. Biswas who also would agree with Mr. Paine that everyone deserves their own bit of land. Over and over again we find in Naipaul’s fiction the physical and mental discomfort in the place in which his characters have landed. Whether is as the Indian servant in D.C. who lives in a closet (Naipaul 1971) or Mr. Biswas who manages to find a house, albeit a very flawed house (Naipaul 1961).
In an interview on BBC radio Mr. Naipaul comments that a “critic said it (A House for Mr. Biswas) was a study in dependence” (BBC 2003). But the author tells his audience that Mr. Biswas was searching for “privacy and space.”
Although Naipaul was born as a third generation Hindu Indian child in the Caribbean he claims to be an outsider in his home country. During his life he has searched for his roots in India and eventually landed in London, the capitol of the colonizer of both the Caribbean and India which seems, from some perspectives to suit him quite well.
In the end for all his adventures with homelessness and searching for a house and a home throughout his life; finally when it really matters Mr. Biswas has a home of his own for his last days on earth. In contemporary times when homelessness is so often a reality perhaps ‘home’ will become a state-of-mind.
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