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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2003
This is a charming novel. And this is his first work, to boot. A literary debut like this has got to make a few would-be writers wince. At least it's hard for me to imagine how writers could paint characters with even less brushstrokes than Naipaul and still succeed in making them so warm and lively.

The magic of this novel is that, even though the setting is in remotely foreign Trinidad-Tobago, it will still secure any reader's attention from the very first page, the idiosyncratic conjugation of the verbs `to be' and `to have' in the native patois notwithstanding. What helps is the abundant humor largely of two types: one where you laugh along with the characters in the sheer fortuitous turn of events, the other where you smile at their forgivably human foibles and the narrator's wry observations.
The plot itself is humorous. A bookish student named Ganesh Ramsumair is wedded to the plucky Leela through the machination of a crafty penny-pincher named Ramlogan. Having found out prior to the wedding that Ramlogan is charging him for his relatives' food without his consent, Ganesh proceeds to swindle his father-in-law, during an elaborate Hindu marriage ritual - details of which are hard to explain. Having realized that he must now make a living, he tries a few odd jobs, before he hits by luck on the one profession that his island needed most: a mystic. A mystic? Even Ganesh himself is half-incredulous, but sooner or later people flock from all over the country, wanting his help in driving some demon out of someone or other. From there on, his fortune never wanes. The final metamorphosis converts Ganesh into a democratic politician (hah!), a destiny that culminates in his transformation into the thoroughly anglicized "G. Ramsay Muir OBE".

What supports this edifice is a wonderful cast of characters, quasi-cartoonish in their presentation, but still very human. To take an example, the Great Belcher is thus named because of her unfortunate habit of eructation. But she redeems herself to the reader through a string of remarkably level-headed advice. Ramlogan is almost a cardboard cut-out villain, but his fluctuation from resentment to respect for Ganesh is so transparently tied to his greed that it's almost understandable.

The exchanges between the characters are also wonderful. One morning Ganesh decides that he and his neighbor should speak grammatically correct English. Neither Ganesh nor Suruj Poopa, his accomplice in literary endeavors, can suppress a smile at their ridiculously polite English. When his wife Leela chides him at night for forfeiting his resolution so quickly, the terse response is that she "cook food good". The stuff is classic.
But the irony of it is that he will end up speaking impeccably correct English and irony is where this novel truly shines. The matter-of-factly narration (peppered with a few general observations) remains fairly detached from his subject, the end result being innocent pokes and wry fun. The sign at his house welcomes the customer with suitably mystic overtones in Hindi, but in English the message is harshly business-like. His "election" is hardly democratic, and very corrupt. His abrupt transformation from a leftish politician to a right one comes not from conviction but from petty affront.
In the end, it would be endless to point out this novel's charms and witty sides. Anyone looking for a fun book should find it for themselves. I can't see how any reader could go wrong with this provided they are not looking for serious profundity. But you can't be reading Dostoevsky all the time. So take a breather.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on July 26, 2002
The Mystic Masseur was Naipaul's first novel, and it is probably the best known of his works (a movie has been turned out by Messrs. Merchant & Ivory). The main character is one Ganesh Ramsumair, the son of an Indian immigrant to Trinidad, who seems to be blessed by fortune. Each time he is in danger of taking a wrong turn, his fate steps in and gently nudges him in the right direction. Ganesh first attends school in Port of Spain, where he feels inadequate and has only one friend, clever anglophile Indarsingh, who leaves for Oxford upon graduation. Ganesh then attends a teacher's college, and takes a position as an elementary school teacher. He is not a success and resigns his position for a life of idleness, which is ended when his father dies, bequeathing to him some land and some royalties from an oil company. When attending his father's funeral he meets his formidable relation, The Great Belcher, who is one of these wise elderly Indian women who are accostumed to running funerals, marriages, businesses and lives for their younger folk. He also meets Ramlogan, extremely unpleasant owner of a rhum shop who is quarrelsome but cowardly, and not above any underhandedness (he will turn up again and play a crucial part in Naipaul's "The Suffrage of Elvira"), whose daughter Leela he marries. Much more devious than would appear initially, Ganesh takes advantage of Ramlogan's pride and extracts from him a house in a remote village and a significant dowry. This is fortunate, because at this time the oil royalty checks stop coming in. Ganesh and Leela move into the Ramlogan's house, and quickly become acquainted with the local rhum-shop owner, Suruj Poopa, who becomes Ganesh's true friend and sounding board. Ganesh spends several years doing nothing much except reading and trying to launch a career as a masseur, but he is apparently not very good at it. He even writes a short book on the Hindu religion, but it doesn't sell. Leela, desperate at his lack of direction tries to convince him to take a job working for the Americans in their military base (WWII is now in force), but fate takes a hand when the Great Belcher and Suruj Poopa advice Ganesh to become a mystic. As a mystic he is extremely successful, performing miraculous cures and eventually becoming a public figure. His prosperity communicates to the entire village where he lives, and to his friends the Surujs, and even his father in law, with whom he quarrels again and again. Eventually, after defeating his rival Narayan (peculiar, this choice of a name) he becomes a leader of the Hindu vote in Trinidad, and a Member of the Legislative Chamber. Initially a leftist (he and Indarsingh try to articulate the theory of Socialinduism, a melange of Hindu nationalism and scientific socialism) and a firebrand (frequently arrested for criticizing government corruption), he then becomes a pillar of the establishment, and is finally rechristened Sir Gordon Ramsay, OBE. His Trinidadian dialect becomes the cut-glass accent of the BBC and his Indian garb is replaced by a bespoke vested suit.
The story, thus told, loses the sense of destiny that Naipaul is able to weave in through the expert use of atmosphere and character. The self-discovery of Ganesh from his humble origins is very well-rendered, and many characters are memorable(especially Leela, Ramlogan, Suruj Poopa and an unnamed boy who helps Ganesh edit his newspaper). The liberating power of reading the great books (which is what Ganesh reads, rather than the lowbrow fare that Mohun Biswas gobbles up in "A House for Mister Biswas") is something that must have rung true for Naipaul (as it did for this reviewer). Several themes (the power of small events to have great consequences, and the almost unlimited scope for personal re-invention) were probably also derived from the author's own experience. This book is a triumph and a jewel.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I try to keep up with Nobel laureates because I am always looking for good reading, and, often, I have never heard of the authors before. I found this book in my local used bookstore. I was intrigued that it was his first novel, and I was especially intrigued by the back cover (1980 paperback edition). There was a quote that comes early in the book:

"Leela," Ganesh said, "the boy want to know how much book it have here."
"Let me see," Leela said... "Four hundred Everyman, two hundred Penguin--six hundred. Six hundred, and one hundred Reader's Library, make seven hundred. I think with all the other book it have about fifteen hundred good book here."
Up in the upper right corner was the symbol of Penguin Publishing. It struck me funny that they would be so bold as to use a quote from the book that so blatantly plugs their line as being "good books" that I had to buy it.
And it's actually quite good. It's not just well-written, it's funny, something I was not expecting. I'm glad I began my Naipaul reading with this one. I believe it seems to be the consensus to begin with A House for Mr Biswas, but, to me, that would be like starting John Irving with A Prayer for Owen Meany--there's really nowhere to go but down.
The story concerns Ganesh a man from Trinidad who fails as a teacher, then as a masseur (he seems to hurt more than he helps), but then finally finds his calling as a healing mystic, all along keeping his one vice--books. Throughout his life he writes books, starting with 101 Questions and Answers about Hinduism. Here is a sample:
Question one: What is Hinduism?
Answer: Hinduism is the religion of the Hindu people.
Question two: Why am I a Hindu?
Answer: Because your parents and grandparents were Hindus.

And so on. Ganesh's book career does not really take off until he reaches fame as a mystic. Then he writes his autobiography, which becomes a best-seller, relatively speaking.
It's hard to tell how Naipaul feels about his characters sometimes. He often seems to be making fun of them, yet also shows great affection for them. However he feels, I had a marvelous time visiting these people and will definitely pick up another Naipaul work in the future.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2002
V. S. Naipaul is always brilliant, but he can be too heady -- I got only `half way through his "Way in the World," and although his thoughts were profound and all that, I had had enough -- and I am not going to finish it.
Not so with The Mystic Masseur (as well as Miguel Street, and The Suffrage of Elvira). These are smart, fun, little books. In these early books, he laboured over every word, and his jokes are funny, his characters idiosyncratic, his use of language not like everyone else (I never saw anyone else write "had had" before him.) There is genuine innocense of a young writer, writing what he knows, and not yet spoiled by the world.
Now, since he was awarded all those prizes, V.S. thinks himself better than his earliest -- and his only realy good -- works. In interviews and writings, he seems a bit embarassed by them.
Its like what happened to Mose Alison, who fancies himself a competent jazz pianist, and refuses to play the simple southern philosophical songs that he is so loved for -- he calls them "flour sack" songs, and will bore you to tears with improvization if you are ever foolish enough to go see MOSE live.

One more thing, I had the good fortune to go to Trinidad a few times, where he grew up and where these books are set. In these books, he captures the essence of Trinidadian culture, that one can still see, despite more Western influence.
Maybe he did not get the Nobel Prize for these books, but he got me to write my first review on Amazon.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
This was the first Naipaul novel I read and I read it straight through in 2 days because it was so much fun. He really gives insight on how people live, think and interact, with great historical context, but without being heavy handed.

Nothing compares to his masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas, but if you don't have two weeks to read that one, read this one.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2001
This short novel is interesting mainly because it is the first by the author. No one could call this a masterpiece on the level of A House for Mr. Biswas or A Bend in the River but it makes for an interesting read nonetheless. This is the story of Ganesh a masseur, mystic and faith healer in rural Trinidad. Ganesh, a Hindu Indian, makes an improbable rise to political power and eventual knighthood. This provides a opportunity for Naipaul to playfully describe colorful characters and village life among Hindus tranplanted to Trinidad. Naipaul's trademark ironic style is more over-the-top here than as seen in later works. The quirky characters are lovable but not completely believable. This is not to say that the book is bad but that it would be of much less interest were it not for the fact that it is the new Nobel laureate's first novel-length work. Paul Theroux makes a reference to The Mystic Masseur in his memoir, Sir Vidia's Shadow. He suggests that Naipaul, by turning his back on Theroux and their decades-long friendship, has become a pompous self-important figure, much like Ganesh at the conclusion of The Mystic Masseur. A movie has been made of this novel and is as yet unreleased.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2010
The first thing that is truly amazing about this short funny book is that it is Naipaul's first; no wonder he went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The second that he is barely 25 years old; it is amazing that someone so young can write such a witty book that has so much to say about religion, politics, colonialism, education, and the island as a society. The third that he is a native-born Trinidadian; yet he writes the kind of concise descriptive English, the type that brings people and places directly to life for the reader, that so many other authors can only dream of.

I found both his use of dialog and native dialect absolutely amazing, making me feel as if I was listening to real people speaking as they might, though in a somewhat comic fashion, in the 1940s in Trinidad. Be warned that there are a few "n-bombs", but this was a multi-pluralist society (in race, color, and creed).

It is also refreshing that the British colonialists and the WWII Americans are mainly just a mere presence throughout the book. We know Trinidad is a colony, but we experience it entirely through the eyes, ears of native Trinidadians, who, most thankfully, are neither perfect nor perfectly awful. They are just human beings trying to live out their lives in a rather difficult if difficultly ordinary situation. And it is most interesting that without hardly disparaging either the natives or the colonizers, the protagonist ends up becoming a thoroughly westernized and pro-western politician, one who embraces the colonial situation.

While reading it the one other book that came to mind, at least in a general sense as to the rise to greatness of a rather non-great man, is Jerzy Kosinski's great work, Being There (1971), which was made into the marvellous movie with Peter Sellers. Naipaul's character's rise seems more believable and a bit funnier.

This is the first book by Naipaul I've read. It won't be the last. I can't wait to read his other early books describing Trinidadian society! Where RK Narayan, who started writing in the 1930s, brings his beloved rural India to life, Naipaul brings forth his beloved Trinidad. Both write some of the finest modern English anywhere in the world. Interestingly, one of Naipaul's antagonists to the hero Ganesh is named "Narayan"!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The Mystic Masseur was Naipaul's first novel. And indeed it looks so. One could not think of so great a writer to begin so humbly. This is not a novel with a grant theme, or an aim or mission. Yet it is not like the modern novels which take their main aim to be aimless.

What strikes us is the genuineness of Naipaul in accepting his humble subject. He takes his Trinidad, his birthplace as his subject. The intellectual honesty, which later became the hallmark of Sir Vidia, was not an attribute which was acquired or which evolved over the course of time. It was there from the very beginning of his career, from his very first novel, The Mystic Masseur, from his very first book of non-fiction, The Middle Passage.

In his last book of non-fiction, `A Writer's People', he discusses about his initial quest for a subject. When he reached England, in 1950s, he had to choose his subject. Having chosen writing as a vocation, the choice of his subject was yet to make, not only the subject, but also the style of writing. After looking for inspiration to many writers, one day he came to a conclusion which would make him, the V S Naipaul, we know:

"I bought a copy of The Painted Veil from a W H Smith news-stand, read some pages standing up, and soon came to the conclusion that Maugham was not a writer I could go to for instruction. Not because Maugham was bad. My material was too far away from his; it was my own; I had to adhere to it and do the best I could with it, in my own way."

We can see our future writer coming into his own. He chose to imitate nobody. He chose to go for what seemed to him his own, original, not yet written, however simple that maybe.

This is what we see in `The Mystic Masseur'. It is not concerned with global politics, not specifically with politics, religion or society. It speaks in small but honest way about the small society of Trinidad. In effect it speaks about smallness, the smallness which pervades the Trinidadian society so completely.

The hero Ganesh gets an idea into his mind of writing a book about, India, Hinduism and his heritage. He takes upon himself the enormous task to write a book explaining everything about Hinduism, `101 Questions and Answers on the Hindu Religion'. The book itself is quoted, which heightens the comedy of the whole episode.

You get a sense of boredom while reading the novel, a boredom of a people who have nothing much to do, nothing much to think about. They have no history, a past only vaguely memorable, a religion remembered only in rituals. They have no native writers. Ganesh earns his fame by becoming a masseur. He then discovers that a little taste of mysticism adds to its charm, and so he becomes a mystic masseur. But the wish of his life is fulfilled only when he writes the book and becomes famous.

But then he engages himself in politics, and later on leaves his job of massage.

This is a world which Naipaul chooses as his subject. True it is small, but it is real and honest. It reflects the people of Naipaul's world at that time.

"I myself believe that the history of Ganesh is, in a way, the history of our times; and there may be people who will welcome this imperfect account of the man Ganesh Ramsumair, masseur, mystic, and, since 1953, M.B.E."

We read in `The Mystic Masseur', of a world, which is half and small, forgotten and poor in ideas. A land where there is no intellectual life, where people just try to live up to some social success, trying everything which comes into their way.

The reader doesn't need to know the geography in order to sense the smallness of Trinidad. It is too pervading in the novel.

From his very first novel, Naipaul conveys his tragic-comic style. This is not to refer to the classical Shakespearean one. There is no Shylock in `The Mystic Masseur'. The tragic sense of Naipaul is not concerned with characters, but with history, with geography and with life itself. Naipaul's is a sneer of man who sees life as on outsider, who sees the world as it is, accepting all its faults and drawbacks. But the final sense is not one of despair, but of true detachedness, objectivity. This paragraph illustrates it well:

"It was their first beating, a formal affair done without anger on Ganesh's part or resentment on Leela's: and although it formed no part of the marriage ceremony itself, it meant much to both of them. It meant that they had grown up and become independent Ganesh had become a man; Leela a wife as privileged as any other big woman. How she too would have tales to tell of her husband's beatings; and when she went home she would be able to look sad and sullen as every woman should."

Even in this early novel, he takes a dig at Gandhi. Discussing a difficult situation, Ganesh says:

"What would Mahatma Gandhi do in a situation like this?"

Then answering himself:

"Write. That's what he would do. Write."

The language itself conveys a very comic sense, at least to a person who is either native English speaker or comes for the subcontinent. Naipaul remains honest even to the grammar of Trinidadians, which is appalling. I was afraid of imbibing some wrong English from these novels of Naipaul.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 29, 2005
The Mystic Masseur is a novel about a man who uses his educated mind in a most unusual and inspiring way. Ganesh Ramsumier, the main character, becomes a revered problem solver in his community. But because Ganesh's community is governed by the chaotic forces of a neglectful colonial government and chronic poverty, they see Ganesh as a mystic and a bit of a savior. In reality he is just an ordinary man though. His secret is simply that he is honest, he studies, he tries hard, he uses common sense and logic, and he is devoted to improving things. These qualities, along with a good education, are everyday things in modern societies, but in the Trinidad that V.S. Naipaul so beautifully evokes, they are very rare and they hold incredible transformative powers.

I think the book does a nice job of showing that one individual can indeed change the world. The idea of changing the world is staggering. The dimensions of the problem and the complexity involved make it appear nearly impossible. But if you ever doubt that the only way a society changes is as the adage goes, "one person at a time, one community at a time," then read this book and be reminded. Granted, even the best intentioned and best suited person for the task can sometimes need a little luck, as does Ganesh in this story. But he gets the luck, he gets the education, and he does something with it. Genius! But I ask: How many people in today's world are getting their chance? The answer clearly is: Not enough. We've got hundreds of millions MORE people living in poverty and amid corrupt governments than there were when V.S. Naipaul began his writing career with this, his first novel.

In some ways the author himself must be very much like his main character Ganesh. After all, the writing of V.S. Naipaul has opened millions of western eyes to the developing world. And the author works in something of a mystic method himself, conjuring characters and scenery, smells, sounds, and tastes out of thin air, and rendering them on the page in an imagined world that readers can fall into and absorb. As the world woke up to the injustice of colonization, Naipaul delivered for us his creation Ganesh, The Mystic Masseur-a man who can make right and make sense in a badly damaged world, and who combines modern day logic and ancient tradition in service of something larger than himself.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
V. S. Naipaul is the most important and well-known writer from Trinidad -- a small country in Central America. His powerful fiction has surpassed the frontiers of his country, he is widely read and studied as has already been deservedly honored with a Nobel award. For one thing, his novel "The Mystic Masseur" sometimes may read as many things we have already read -- but don't be fooled, this is as original and touching as anything sparkling new that any experienced reader may find around.

By the way, experienced readers and book lovers will certainly find another pleasure from this novel. At some point, "The Mystic Masseur" is about the love for books and all the pleasures it can bring to readers. The main character, Ganesh Ramsumair, the masseur from the title, loves to buy and read books. Shelves at his home are filled with many and many volumes from the most different book collections. Like a dream heaven for readers.

But he also wants to write and produces his autobiography which also changes his life and his family's and friends' -- sort of. But it is not only about books that Naipaul wants to talk about in his novel. The printed word turns out to be the metaphor for life itself -- both Ganesh's and Naipaul's. As the narrative moves forward, the reader can realize that the eccentric characters of the book -- very Dickensian people -- are a slice of life.

The fact that the narrative of "The Mystic Masseur" is set in Trinidad doesn't change its universal appeal. Naipaul's words are sometimes dream-like, sometimes evocative, but when it is required they are sharp and cut as a brand new knife -- and they hurt. But he never loses the witty. He creates the perfect environment to place his characters, filling the pages with smells, sounds and atmosphere. As Ganesh writes in his book, `everything happens for the best'. Naipaul seems to agree with him -- so should we.
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