Reading V.S. Naipaul

The much-recognized Trinidadian-British author with Indian heritage, V.S Naipaul, died in August of 2018 at the age of 85. During Naipaul’s lifetime he won the Nobel Prize and the Booker Prize for his writing, among many other awards and recognitions. I’d never read any of his work, and decided that I should tackle something to round out my reading life. Naipaul’s focus was place and identity, which are of interest to me. I chose A House for Mr Biswas, published in 1961 and the first of Naipaul’s novels to achieve wide acclaim.

The book is based loosely on Naipaul’s father’s life, and runs to 578 pages. I have to say that by page 200, and probably a lot sooner, the reader knows that Mr Biswas is never going to get a house that doesn’t get blown away, that doesn’t fall apart, that he doesn’t get turned out of by his wife’s overbearing relatives. Mr Biswas dies at age 46, and he never gets that house — or a solid and stable identity, if that’s what the house stands in for.

This is a sweeping opus of post-colonial Trinidad, not without interest but for me a bit of a slog. I usually try hard to finish a book once I start, and I did finish here. Perhaps part of my frustration was reading about Mr Biswas while I was in Panama, where so much of what Naipaul wrote about was unspooling in front of my eyes in real time — and more powerful than any version of that reality in print. There’s not much solid and stable about the stark poverty in rural Panama either.

I’m glad I read the book, although I probably won’t read any more of Naipaul’s extensive list of highly acclaimed novels. Would I recommend it to you? Only if you enjoy a complex and detailed novel in which the end is evident from the moment you begin to read.

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