#AW80Books – A House For Mr Biswas
I was born with twelve fingers and eleven toes, and so from the get-go, I was sympathetic to poor six-fingered Mr Biswas. According to the pundit (Hindu priest, although I was stuck imagining a cross between Gary Lineker and Peter Hitchens every time I read the word) he should never be allowed near water, not even to bathe, and he would have an unlucky sneeze. And so when people die, including his father, it’s all blamed on Mr Biswas, and his sneeze.
The story takes place in Port of Spain, Trinidad. It seems there’s quite a large Indian community, V. S. Naipaul himself was born there. The book opens with Mr Biswas in his forties, and dying. It throws a sad shadow over the biographical nature of the book, knowing this cursed and unlucky child will die young, but then, this is funny book, with Mr Biswas being called Mr Biswas by the author even when he is three years old, although, he’s hard to really like. He causes a calf to drown by being distracted and lazy, and he ends up marrying a girl he’s not that bothered about simply because he was worried about not getting married, and regretting it all though it was of his own doing.
But then we often do feel sorry for him. One night, when barely more than a child, and away from home receiving training to be a pundit himself (it doesn’t work out, like many of his careers) he is caught short, but is too scared of the dark to go across to the latrine. He decides to do his business in a ceremonial hanky, and put it out of the window. It falls into the branches of the treasured oleander tree, and the next day people think he did it on purpose, which spells the end of his time there, and he is sent back to a widowed mother who doesn’t like him. Clearly these people had never been for walks in British parks and woodland, where weird people hang used dog-poop bags in trees and bushes in the absence of a bin, like smelly offensive Christmas decorations, as they refuse to take it home, assuming a bag in a tree which will take years to rot is better than if it were just out in the open. Apologies, I’m digressing …
I liked this book, and not liking Mr Biswas works out best in the end, seeing as his story is not always happy, as if we find sad things happening to nice characters entertaining, we should just read Watership Down on a loop and be done with it. I also feel the book served me well for my #AW80Books purposes, as I’ve never read anything like it, and the descriptions of Trinidad, from a character who is bored of the Carribbean and finds all the hot, sunny blue and green dull, was a whole new view of somewhere a person in Aberdeenshire whose wheelie bin-lid was ripped off by gales (it will never be the same, it’s now more duct tape than lid) regards as paradise.
The only other literary figure I know of with extra digits was Sophie in John Wynham’s Chrysalids, who had eleven toes like me. Her life isn’t a picnic and she ends up heartbroken and dying young, so if we could have some people with extra bits doing well in novels, I’d be very happy.