WORD: Mr. Biswas is us
To me, what makes a literary work deserve the term “classic,” is that it withstands the test of time, that it speaks to generations beyond its own (needless to say, I take issue with the notion of an “instant classic”). More significantly, a classic literary work speaks to the individual in fresh, intriguing, inspiring ways over the individual’s lifetime. If one of the joys of reading is re-reading, a classic proves itself open to reinterpretation, delivers new insights, pleasures, and nods of recognition of the human experience.
I recently re-read V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, curious to see if the many years since I first read it had changed my initial impression that it is one of the finest novels of the twentieth century.
It hadn’t. If anything, I loved it more this time around.
I was surprised at how many small details I remembered: the bay rum Mrs. Tulsi has rubbed on her scalp, Mr. Biswas’s calf muscles described as “swinging hammocks,” his repeated promise to his wife, Shama, that he was going to buy her a gold brooch someday. Mostly, though, it is Mr. Biswas’s impotent rage, his alienation and essential loneliness, that came back in a rush of feeling for me – and my compassion for him was deeper than ever.
Mohun Biswas is a man as colonized as the Trinidad he lives in – by the wheel of fate, by his wife’s family, by his own limitations. His consolation for the indignities of poverty is reading Marcus Aurelius, a solace I utterly relate to. His determination to build a house of his own is nothing short of heroic. He blunders, he has small triumphs. He struggles for independence but cannot survive without his tribe. He is slyly comic, he behaves as tyrannically (if ineffectually) as the powers he rails against. He is touching, funny, heartbreaking. Mohun Biswas is all of us.