Customer Reviews: A House for Mr. Biswas
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on September 29, 1999
Like most of the other reviewers, I was captivated by Naipaul's obvious mastery of the language. This book is worth reading for that alone. But it also worth reading for the beauty of the story. It is a simple story: a man is born into a world devoid of opportunity; he feels himself belittled by that world, trapped in a role that makes him merely an appendage in other people's lives; against the odds and all expectations, he carves out a place for himself, a home, where he can be his own man and the leading actor of his own life. While it is true that the character Mohun Biswas is not entirely sympathetic -- indeed he is often exasperating and occasionally contemptible -- I felt I understood why he acted as he did, and could empathize. This is a testimony to the power of Naipaul's artistry; he has, in tracing Biswas from birth to death, created a fully developed human being, as perfect a simulcram of a real person as exists in modern literature. Being able to understand, and share in, the life journey of such a character is a powerful experience.
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on June 13, 2002
As a British colony, Trinidad became the home of many Indian immigrants, and "A House for Mr. Biswas" tells the story of a man who is born into and grows up in this society searching for a place he can call his own. In this novel, V.S. Naipaul vividly and picturesquely describes Trinidad as a thriving but generally poor island populated by a strong Hindu community with a waning observance of the caste system and where, even well into the twentieth century, the most common mode of transportation is the bicycle.
Naipaul's titular protagonist, Mohun Biswas, was born a bad omen, declared by a pundit (Hindu scholar) to be the eventual downfall of his parents; the prophecy is seemingly fulfilled when his father accidentally dies because of his mischief. After some brief schooling, Mr. Biswas (as he is called throughout the novel, even as a young boy) embarks on a series of odd jobs: After an unsuccessful apprenticeship to a pundit, he is sent to work in a relative's rumshop and later becomes a sign-painter. It is on this job that he meets a pretty girl named Shama, whose family, named Tulsi, owns many properties and businesses in Trinidad. A marriage is arranged between Biswas and Shama, and he soon finds himself a prisoner of the Tulsi family in a way, a situation which becomes the basis for his lifelong struggle for independence.
The Tulsis' house, called the Hanuman House, is crowded with members of Shama's extended family, including her mother, her uncle Seth, who manages much of the family's businesses, brothers, sisters, and innumerable and indistinguishable nieces and nephews -- living conditions which lead to irritation and violent arguments with in-laws. The Tulsis give him a shop to run and a sugarcane field to oversee, but he lets deadbeats and workers take advantage of him. His attempt to build his own house and move away from the Tulsis for good, with the help of an incompetent carpenter, ends in disaster.
On his own initiative, he becomes a reporter for a Trinidad newspaper, the Sentinel, writing sensational and often embellished stories, interviewing "Deserving Destitutes," and learning a new kind of creativity which grants him true vocational freedom from the Tulsis. Meanwhile, Shama bears him four children, among whom there is only one son, Anand, whose fragile relationship with his father instills the novel with touching moments of realism.
It's easy to empathize with Mr. Biswas, for he is a character of the most universal sort -- everyone can relate to his desire for autonomy, freedom, and independence. He could be a symbol of the emancipation of a controlled people -- specifically, Indian independence from the British empire -- but the novel also succeeds on its surface level. We know from the prologue that Mr. Biswas eventually does escape the Tulsis and obtain a house, a decrepit, boxlike affair that hardly seems like a personal triumph. But it is *his* house, his declaration of independence, a final confirmation that he is indeed his own man.
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on September 2, 2001
�A House for Mr. Biswas� is all of the following -- complex, psychologically perceptive, emotionally difficult, rewarding, moving, depressing, tragi-comic, deeply ironic, metaphoric, nightmarishly surreal, utterly believable, honest, exasperating, claustrophobic, prudish in some ways (no sex, for instance), deeply human, liberating, brilliant, frustrating, beautifully written � and much more. It is a book which very well may tempt you, as it tempted me, to just say �the hell with it� about halfway through, as Mr. Biswas struggles, but never seems able to achieve, autonomy, self respect, happiness, freedom (especially from the suffocating, sprawling Tulsi family � the ultimate in-laws from hell!!), let alone the �house� referred to in the title. But don�t give in to temptation! �A House for Mr. Biswas� is a book that richly rewards those who stick with it, who persevere, just as Mr. Biswas does, although at times you may feel like you can�t take it anymore (one step forwards, two steps back, argggghhh!). Perhaps a helpful attitude in reading this book, which I strongly recommend you consider, is to think of yourself as a �reader and learner� (to use V.S. Naipaul�s term for the Tulsi schoolchildren) at the feet of a superb writer with something to say and a great deal of wisdom to impart.
In sum, �A House for Mr. Biswas� is a deeply satisfying (as opposed to �entertaining� or superficially �enjoyable�) book, NOT easy summer �beach reading�, but a book which confirms the psychological cliché that it�s the HARD STUFF which is potentially the most rewarding emotionally. So, don�t let the fact �A House for Mr. Biswas� is not �easy� scare you off, because this is truly a brilliant book, and one which richly deserves its ranking as one of the �best books of the century� (#72 on the Modern Library�s best fiction list, for instance). Oh, and by the way, why hasn�t V.S. Naipaul won the Nobel prize for literature yet? (Earth to Nobel Prize committee, come in please!) Anyway, for what it�s worth, I hereby nominate him, and hope that many of you will second my nomination!
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on January 25, 2002
A House For Mr. Biswas, the acclaimed novel by Nobel prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul, reads like an epic and is clearly the work of an accomplished writer. Naipaul's depiction of one man's life, beginning with his birth in rural Trinidad at which time he is labeled as "cursed" by the local holy man, is an extraordinary account of an ordinary man and his struggle to provide for his family. So why does this book, filled with beautiful prose, memorable characters, and heart-wrenching events, feel like it is about 200 pages too long?

Mohun Biswas, an ethnic-Indian born in Trinidad in the early 1900s, abruptly marries into the Tulsi family, and his life is from that point on dominated by his controlling mother-in-law, Mrs. Tulsi, and Seth, her brother and head of the Tulsi household. The Tulsi family provides him with housing and various jobs, ranging from managing their dry goods store to supervising their farm, but they also provide him with constant harassment and grief. Mr. Biswas longs for the day that he can own his own home, and his pursuit of this goal is the novel's persistent theme which gives it its epic quality.
A House For Mr. Biswas is, ultimately, a finely crafted novel. Naipaul's powerful, moving prose beautifully depicts the struggle, pain, and sorrow of one man's life; at the same time he paints a calm and full portrait of the ethnic-Indian experience in rural Trinidad. In many ways, this book does for rural Trinidad what John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath does for Salinas, California. It's only flaw, perhaps, is that the book's length feels somewhat forced, as if Naipaul believed that a 600-page novel would more powerfully depict his character's tragic nature than, say, a 400-page novel. The truth is that Naipaul's prose is so robust, and his characters so genuinely human, that A House For Mr. Biswas achieved the status of epic long before its final page.
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VINE VOICEon October 8, 2002
This is one of the handful of true classics written since the Second World War, and the greatest novel ever written by someone who lived and grew up in the Third World. It is a story told with great compassion and humor of Mohun Biswas, a man who, despite all his faults and weaknesses, is head and shoulders above his provincial but wealthy in-laws. The novel chronicles Mr. Biswas's sad but dogged struggle to attain a level of dignity among people sunk in stupidity and a mania for status. Reading this book, I began to understand Naipaul's especially pessimistic non-ideological conservatism. He sees all too clearly how the problems of the Third World are a product of certain type of congenital dysfunction. This is the tragedy of the novel. The people he describes are victims of their own states of mind. Any attempt to "liberate" them would surely fail, because you cannot cure sicknesses of the soul. Biswas realizes he can do nothing about his in-laws. They are hopeless cases. When they move to a country state, instead of harvesting the many orange trees on the property, they begin chopping them down so they can pick the oranges that much easier. By this time, Biswas is too much of a fatalist even to be angry about this any more. In Biswas fatalism we see the seeds of Naipaul's pessimistic vision of the Third World.
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on April 5, 2001
in a way, the tone of this book is slightly familiar: a tale of one man, from childhood to death, in trinidad. Mohun Biswas seems cursed from birth, and after his father dies we trace him as he tries his hand at various trades and occupations before he marries into the tight-knit and tyrannical Tulsi family. Mr Biswas is a struggler, and he alienates almost everyone as he gives voice to his considerable, though at times intractible and immature, mind. but the primary lesson in this book is that *time passes.* and things evolve. after an exhausting chain of negative events that bring the reader to the point of putting the book down -- "this is too depressing!" things start to turn out a bit better. not spectacularly -- just the kind of improvements that come from *growing older.* only in the final third of the book do you start to realize -- hey, I've been reading one of the best books I've ever read. This was an incredible journey, and I'm wiser about lives and souls under colonialism, wiser about how we age and struggle and grow, and wiser about how like deals two bad blows for each good development, and still life could be called good. a truly great book.
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on November 26, 1999
A House for Mr. Biswas is one of the few books I tend to "push" people to read. I first heard about Naipaul in 1980 when Elizabeth Hardwick wrote a piece on him in the New York Review of Books. So I read A Bend in the River and loved it. A bit later that year, I moved to London, England to study for a year. I decided to spend the year studying V.S. Naipaul and wrote a book-length paper on him. Biswas was the fourth book I read by him and it just blew me away. It's one of handful of books I'd take to the fabled desert island. Naipaul, I've learned, is not everyone's cup of tea. His maddening fastidiousness can just about drive a reader nuts, especially in his travel writing. But, my God, what a prose master he is! It's an absolute disgrace he hasn't won the Nobel yet. I highly recommend The Enigma of Arrival, one of the strangest and most beautiful books ever written. It's rivetingly haunting. Please read it, folks!
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on December 28, 2001
This book is deservedly regarded as the new Nobel laureate's masterpiece. It is tells the life story of Mr. Mohun Biswas, a Hindu born in rural Trinidad. Mr. Biswas (and Naipaul ironically refers to him this way even when describing his infancy) is a poor Brahmin struggling to make something of his life. His father dies while he is still a boy and this causes him to exist as a poor relation held in low esteem first living with his mother on the stingy charity of his aunt and uncle and then with his wife's family, who treat him with similar contumely. Along the way Mr. Biswas has several children, including Anand who is the narrator of the story. Anand is, of course, Naipaul and Mr. Biswas is the author's father. On first reading I had believed that the book was much more of an autobiography than it really is. Naipaul has changed many of the names and places, perhaps to avoid giving offense to chararacters still living at the time the novel was first published (1958). Naipaul's brother Shiva, who was an accomplished author in his own right and who died prematurely in 1985, is not described at all. The ironic style gives the book a serio-comic feel that is quite true to life. The title's characters makes numerous failed attempts to at last have a house of his own, to get back to what he lost when his father died those many years ago. Every endeavor to make something of himself goes awry. His first job in a rum-shop ends when he is beaten and falsely accused of theft. His next job as a pundit's apprentice ends when he accidentally throws feces on to a sacred tree. There follow several other jobs, all of which eventually go wrong. Mr. Biswas is a failure at everything he does until the day he leaves his mother-in-law's house for the big city, Port of Spain. It is there that he first becomes a modest success as writer for the one of the island's major newspapers. My description does not do the book justice. The story itself is perhaps not very interesting at face value. It would seem at first that there is little in this book for a reader who is not a Hindu Trinidadian. That is not at all the case. It is the writer's gentle and loving telling of Mr. Biswas' life story interspersed with ironic and sarcastic comments resonating with the reader's own experiences of love-hate realtionships with his own family that make this a masterpiece.
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on January 9, 2003
A House for Mr. Biswas was the fifth book of V.S. Naipaul's that I have read, and I think nicely punctuates the first phase of his oeuvre. In order, I read Between Father and Son, The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, Miguel Street, and A House for Mr. Biswas; and now I am on to The Middle Passage. I recommend reading Between Father and Son before A House for Mr. Biswas because of the revealing nature of the former, the clearly autobiographical nature of the latter, and the added poignancy that comes from fully recognizing the aspirations and achievements of both the fictional and the real participants of Mr. Naipaul's life. While the other works are entertaining and offer insight into life in Trinidad, they are not critical in forming a complete appreciation for A House for Mr. Biswas. Naipaul's letters to and from his family during his time at Oxford clarify and qualify what he says later in his first mature work and longest novel.
A House for Mr. Biswas opens with the announcement of the death of our hero, and then traces his past though his youth, marriage, career, and the achievement of his lifelong dream-the acquisition of his own home. Mr. Biswas is representative of everyone who has struggled to identify themselves as an individual in a crowd. Having lived his life under the ostensible control of others, it is only in this final achievement of possessing a home that he truly becomes free. Naipaul's often acclaimed prose is readily evident in this fond portrayal of his father, and his often declaimed pessimism is nowhere to be found by this reader. Although Mr. Biswas' trials and tribulations may seem inordinately difficult and despairing, particularly to readers privileged to live in more affluent economies, he, and the sympathetic reader, never lose hope; and both, I believe, gain a measure of satisfaction. Naipaul's villain is stupidity, and he illustrates it in many guises, but the gentle humor with which he has invested the book can only be missed by the most callous of readers.
I have read of Mr. Naipaul being called the "voice of exile", and yet find that perhaps more than any other author, he informs all of his books with personal history. Certainly his early work is firmly entrenched in the Trinidad of his youth, and his later writing, based upon jacket synopses, does not depart a great distance from the home that Derek Walcott has accused him of fleeing. He may live in England, but he continues in both his fiction and non-fiction, both now hopelessly intertwined, to notice and remark on the details of life in societies where many of his critics fear to tread, or at least fail to fully appreciate in the opacity of their vision. For these reasons he may be one of the most nostalgic writers I have ever read, and if home is where the heart is, he is far from exiled from the community where he was born and raised. His autobiography of the writer from Trinidad continues, and I am eagerly anticipating making my way through the rest of this remarkable life in words. The Nobel was well deserved.
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on March 10, 2005
One of the most satisfying novels I have ever read. In my admittedly non-erudite opinion, it is the author's best work. At the least, it is his most honest one, free of a certain smug condescension and pretentiousness that seems to creep into his later works. The writing is richly detailed (none of it superfluous), with a brilliantly understated sense of hapless comedy underscoring the tragedy of Mohun Biswas's life. If you like prose that is not pompous, full of gentle wit, and clearly in the hands of a master, and a story of rare poignancy - this is your book.
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