Trinidad’s Hindu community wasn’t really visible until this book hit the book-stands and big time in the early 60s. It was odd enough that there was an island with a Spanish name, French historical sites and an English-speaking population that close to Venuzuela. Naipaul, working for the BBC after Oxford, thought he was going to be a comic novelist and this book has the shape of one if few actual reasons to smile. The opening chapter about the protagonist’s birth calls him ‘Mr Biswas’ even after we’ve had it explained why his mother called him ‘Mohun’, for example.
Mr Biswas finds himself married into the Tulsi family, an autocratic dynasty who don’t seem to think of him as much more than a source of more children. His attempt to establish himself as a paterfamilis is fairly obviously symbolised by wanting to move out of the family demesne, Hanuman House, and get somewhere of his own for his children and wife where he is in control. This almost happens, several times. It can get a bit repetitive, but stick with it. As with Bleak House and Howards’ End the identification of house-ownership with control of the cultural identity of the nation is suggested fairly clearly. Naipaul sincerely believed himself to be worthy of mention alongside Forster and Dickens and bridles against being thought of as ‘merely’ a post-colonial novelist. Yet the use of a village pundit to foresee baby Biswas’ future is something the Great Tradition authors then cited as what literature should be like never would have tried.
At the beginning of Part Two, Mr Biswas is trying to write for a living and uses a correspondence course from the Ideal School of Journalism, Edgeware Road, which recommends ‘everyday’ subjects he has no reason to ever have seen. Biswas is exactly the kind of parochial also-ran Naipaul feared himself becoming but also (from what we can gather) very like his father.