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Critical Essay by Gordon Rohlehr
SOURCE: "The Ironic Approach: The Novels of V. S. Naipaul," in Critical Perspectives on V. S. Naipaul, Heinemann Educational Books, 1977, pp. 178-93.
In the following essay, Rohlehr discusses Naipaul's ironic approach toward and "sympathetic rejection" of Trinidadian culture.
About Naipaul's first three novels George Lamming writes in The Pleasures of Exile:
His books can't move beyond a castrated satire; and although satire may be a useful element in fiction, no important work comparable to Selvon's can rest safely on satire alone. When such a writer is a colonial, ashamed of his cultural background and striving like mad to prove himself through promotion to the peaks of a 'superior' culture whose values are gravely in doubt, then satire, like the charge of philistinism, is for me nothing more than a refuge. And it is too small a refuge for a writer who wishes to be taken seriously.
This is an important and damaging criticism which merits examination. Lamming, Selvon and Naipaul are equally preoccupied with the West Indian social scene and with what it means to them, as individuals, to be West Indians. Yet Lamming criticizes Naipaul's presentation of the West Indian experience and the nature of his personal quest to discover where he stands. There is the assertion that mere irony is irrelevant to West Indian society at this stage. Thus satire is a means of running away from the sordid truth, by seeking refuge in laughter, whose basis is an assumption of one's own cultural superiority to the world one ridicules.
Yet Naipaul's 'Englishness' does not manifest itself, as Lamming suggests in a crude and overt striving to attain the dubious standards of the metropolis. In fact, his ironic awareness uncovers all that is drab, petty and humourless in English life, as we see in Mr Stone and the Knight's Companion. It manifests itself, rather, in his unconscious acceptance of a typical European view of Third World inferiority, a view which is now being attacked from several quarters. It shows itself in his contemptuous rejection of all things West Indian, which at times breaks through even the geniality of The Mystic Masseur (1957). The conviction of an anarchic society which the author must reject lies also behind Miguel Street. Here, however, the rejection is not done in contempt, but with considerable sympathy. This book, like A House for Mr Biswas (1961), forces one to reconsider Lamming's criticism to see what it misses of Naipaul's subtlety, and to see what it does not say about the complexity of his situation.
Naipaul is a Trinidad East Indian who has not come to terms with the Negro-Creole world in Trinidad, or with the East Indian world in Trinidad, or with the greyness of English life, or with life in India itself, where he went in search of his roots. After these two books Naipaul wrote The Middle Passage (1962), which manifests all the new depth and astringency which his irony has assumed, and at the same time demonstrates all the superficiality which one thought he had left far behind. This book makes one feel again the justice of Lamming's criticism, and realize how true a comment it is on one very real aspect of Naipaul's attitude, as it appears in some of his books.
The position of the ironist in colonial society is indeed a delicate one. Lamming can see little that is risible in a society whose history is one of underprivilege. One appreciates his point. The early Naipaul is at times the irresponsible ironist, subtle, but lacking in a sensitive participation in the life he anatomizes. If one says that the exercise of irony precludes sympathy, one is merely defining the limitations of irony, and the limitations of any of Naipaul's work which depends solely on irony. So far one agrees with Lamming.
Satire is the sensitive measure of a society's departure from a norm inherent in itself. Since Naipaul starts with the conviction that such a norm is absent from his society, his task as satirist becomes doubly difficult. Not only must he recreate experience, but also simultaneously create the standards against which this experience is to be judged. This explains the mixture of farce and social consciousness which occurs in the two early novels. In 1957 Naipaul's first novel, The Mystic Masseur, was published. It is about an Indian, Ganesh Ramsummair, who begins his career as a secondary school teacher and then becomes a masseur. He only achieves success, however, when he becomes a 'mystic', and attends to Trinidad's spiritual problems. His brilliance as a mystic helps him to become a successful author, politician, diplomat and eventually gains him an M.B.E. In 1958 followed Naipaul's second novel, The Suffrage of Elvira. It deals with the farce of elections in an unsophisticated part of Trinidad, beset by superstition and ignorance, where everyone is conscious only of the profit he can make out of this new game.
The tone of these two books is almost the same. A situation of superstition, ignorance, absurdity, knavery and self-interest, is presented as the reality in Trinidad social and political life. Naipaul consciously presents his real world as farcical. The reader is invited simultaneously to recognize the degree of distortion and to share in the author's grin as he insists that the situation is perfectly normal. 'I myself believe that the history of Ganesh is, in a way, the history of our times.' It is the Chaucerian pose; the genial elevation of the absurd and the constant pretence on the part of the satirist that he fully condones the behaviour of the rogues he satirizes. Chaucer's rascals are always the best fellows in the land. 'Ganesh elevated the profession by putting the charlatans out of business.' Naipaul's humour here awakens Chaucerian echoes.
It is only when one reads The Middle Passage that one realizes how completely Naipaul has accepted anarchy and absurdity as the norms of his society. If in the early farces an absurd world is presented as real, in The Middle Passage a real world is presented as tragically futile and absurd. The deeper implication of the first two books is that West Indian society, emerging from ignorance and superstition, is peculiarly susceptible to depredation by the fraud and the politician, and by all opportunists who are prepared to exploit the social unease for their personal ends. That Ganesh and Harbans are treated so genially conceals Naipaul's seriousness of purpose. Ganesh, who poses as the defender of Hinduism while it is politic and profitable to do so, completely rejects Indian dress and changes his name to G Ramsay Muir once he becomes a successful politician. This change of name and dress is always used by Naipaul to symbolize the acculturation of the East Indian to pseudo-western patterns of life, which is something he writes of with bitterness, despair and regret. One should not be misled by his genial tone to overestimate his admiration for Ganesh, the successful fraud.
Yet even in a book of the geniality of The Mystic Masseur Naipaul can lack sympathy. His hero approaches his nadir in such scenes as the dinner at Government House, where Naipaul depicts an imaginary confrontation between the most unsophisticated members of Creole and Indian society, and the hypercivilized governor's wife. All that Naipaul finds ridiculous in Creole society is paraded here: the bad grammar, lack of taste or social grace, complete unawareness and the struggle to be white. A black man, of whose blackness Naipaul makes a special point, is dressed in a blue suit, with yellow gloves and a monocle, which eventually falls into the soup. Several of the guests have some difficulty in manipulating their knives and forks. One can accept this as farce intended, in its distorted way, to show the Creole and Indian on the painful and ridiculous road to whiteness. But the suspicion persists that Naipaul himself regards these people with more contempt than compassion. These are the same people whom he describes in The Middle Passage as being 'like monkeys pleading for evolution'. The incongruity of his position here, as Lamming points out, is that while he laughs at his Creoles crudely aping standards of pseudo whiteness, he can only do so assuming these very norms himself.
In 1959 came Miguel Street, a series of short stories about an urban slum in Trinidad, told by a boy who speaks in the first person. The 'I' in this book is not merely an autobiographical 'I'. To discover Naipaul, one must get past the voice that tells the tale to the narrator behind the narrator. One must appreciate all the nuances and shifts of irony, of which the boy could not possibly be conscious. The boy-narrator is not Naipaul, but a device exploited by Naipaul the artist who operates in detachment. If these stories are autobiography, they are autobiography set at a distance through irony.
Early on a theme of futility is established.
Popo's workshop no longer sounded with hammering and sawing. The sawdust no longer smelled fresh, and became black, almost like dirt. Popo began drinking a lot, and I didn't like him when he was drunk. He smelled of rum, and he used to cry and then grow angry and want to beat up everybody. That made him an accepted member of the gang.
It is such a careful selection of detail that makes these stories less slight than appears on the surface. The whole pattern of the book is to depict the inevitable movement from freshness to dirt, and from laughter to tears. Moreover, at every point the boy judges and measures this degradation, until he finally rejects a society which reduces everyone to its own level of amorality. But while the boy hints at a norm by saying that he does not like Popo drunk, Miguel Street accepts him fully. So that when Popo goes to jail, the mecca of Miguel Street, the verdict of the street is, 'We was wrong about Popo. He is a man like any of we.'
The statement serves two functions. It links the world of Miguel Street to the world of The Mystic Masseur by suggesting the distortion of accepted moral values as the norm. At the same time the claim is being made that all the eccentrics of Miguel Street are men 'like any of we', that Yahoo-land is a real place. As I have suggested, in a society which is seen as having no true standards, irony is bound to operate in reverse, the ironist starting with an abnormal situation and hinting at a sanity which is absent from his world. However, if the impulse behind Miguel Street is similar to that behind The Mystic Masseur, the whole tone is more serious. The farce has become a nightmare. Here one finds it difficult to accept Lamming's description of Naipaul's satire as a refuge and escape from experience. If satire is a means of running away, it is equally a means of fighting; an act of bravery, not cowardice; the confrontation of a nightmare, not the seeking of a refuge.
This passage is an example of how Naipaul's larger ironic awareness controls the boy's naive account of the facts:
And once Hat said, 'Every day Big Foot father, the policeman, giving Big Foot blows. Like medicine. Three times a day after meals. And hear Big Foot talk afterwards. He used to say, "When I get big and have children, I go beat them, beat them."…'
I asked Hat, 'And Big Foot mother? She used to beat him too?'
Hat said, 'Oh God! That would kill him. Big Foot didn't have any mother. His father didn't married, thank God!'
What Naipaul is aware of here is a lack of family life and a heritage of brutality passed on from father to son. Miguel Street accepts this as normal and ideal.
One of the main themes of these stories is the nature and complexity of laughter in Miguel Street. Hat constantly points out how apparent laughter conceals tears. The laughter of Miguel Street is sometimes crude and cynical. But whenever this occurs, the boy points out the need for a greater sensitivity. 'And all of us from Miguel Street laughed at Big Foot. All except me. For I knew how he felt.' At most other times, however, there is propriety about the street's laughter. It is silent when Laura cries 'all the cry she had tried to cover up with her laughter.' Contemptuous laughter is always frowned upon, limits are placed on cynicism. This is why Nathaniel can never belong to the street, and Hat relegates him to a lower world. "'I don't know why he don't go back to the Dry River where he come from. They ain't have any culture there and he would be happier.'" There are the several occasions when Hat threatens to thrash Boysie if he dares laugh at the latest Miguel Street misfortune. Because of Naipaul's sympathy, Miguel Street comes across to the reader not merely as a jungle, but as a place where people in the face of insuperable frustration still preserve an intimacy and humour which is almost a new type of maturity.
In 1960 Naipaul revisited Trinidad after an absence of ten years. Born in Trinidad in 1932, he had left at the age of eighteen for England, where he went to Oxford and has lived ever since. In The Middle Passage, a travel-book written about his return to the West Indies, he attempts to assess his relation to the world which he has been treating in his fiction. Although this book was published in 1962, one year after A House for Mr Biswas, one feels justified in considering it first, since in the latter book Naipaul presents his experience with a completeness and conclusiveness which is absent from The Middle Passage. Naipaul shows in his direct examination of Trinidad a superficiality which he has outgrown in his novels.
It has been pointed out that The Middle Passage is not written from the standpoint of a professional historian or sociologist and that Naipaul's reactions are those of imaginative sensibility. This is true and this is where the difficulty lies. To this author's sensibility, Trinidad represents a nightmare, and one has constantly to differentiate between his sensitive examination of history and his honest expression of hysteria. He confesses a pathological dislike for Trinidad.
I had never wanted to stay in Trinidad. When I was in the fourth form I wrote a vow on the endpaper of my Kennedy's Revised Latin Primer to leave within five years. I left after six; and for many years afterwards in England, falling asleep in bed-sitters with the electric fire on, I had been awakened by the nightmare that I was back in tropical Trinidad.
It is a nightmare which, nurtured through a decade of absence, and reinforced by the literature which Naipaul has read about the West Indies, has now become an obsession. 'As soon as the Francisco Bobadilla had touched the quay … I began to feel all my old fear of Trinidad. I did not want to stay.'
The book, however, is written with a conscious nobility of purpose. It purports to be an assessment of Naipaul's West Indian experience and an apology for his self-chosen exile. The important first two chapters of the book are carefully written. One notes, for example, the appropriateness of all the quotations which Naipaul uses as epigrams to these chapters. First there is the general epigram to the book, a quotation from Anthony Froude's The English in the West Indies.
They were valued only for the wealth which they yielded, and society there has never assumed any particularly noble aspect … There are no people there in the true sense of the word, with a character and purpose of their own.
Or one may consider the two quotations from Thomas Mann and Tacitus, at the beginning of the chapter on Trinidad. The quotation from Mann is particularly apt. What one notices is that these three quotations are about three entirely different peoples: West Indians, Israelites and Britons. The impression conveyed is one of the timelessness of the process which Naipaul observes at work in the West Indies today. It is to his credit that he chooses his epigrams from three different sources, and thus places the West Indian experience against a backcloth of universal experience. It is regrettable that this impression of universality could not be maintained.
The name 'Middle Passage' is a symbol at many levels. It is symbolic of that original journey which was the beginning of a slavery and which Naipaul sees existing in spirit. At the same time it is a symbol of the West Indies today in that transitional middle stage between the cultures which her people lost and the new sense of cultural identity which they have not yet gained. Like Thomas Mann's Israelites, they are seen to be 'in a transitional land, pitching their tents between the houses of their fathers and the real Egypt … unanchored souls wavering in spirit and without a secure doctrine'. Like the Britons under Roman rule, they are seen to speak to 'such novelties as "civilization" when really they are only a feature of enslavement'.
The name 'Middle Passage' also refers to the new journey which the West Indian emigrant makes to England. The first chapter is a sensitive record of certain very real aspects of West Indian life. There is the emigrant who abandons a perfectly good job to go to a land of which he is completely ignorant, but which even as a child he has known to be the Mother Country. There are the tourist-class petty bourgeois West Indians with their values of colour and money, who demonstrate every feature of insularity, ignorance, vulgarity and self-contempt in their society. These people refer to the immigrants as the 'wild cows' and the 'orangoutangs'. But as is suggested by the sentence beginning, 'Like monkeys pleading for evolution', Naipaul is himself capable of the denigratory comparison. His contempt is the result of superior intellectual awareness; the tourists' contempt is self-contempt, the result of ignorance. It is difficult to say which is worse. There is also the Englishwoman, completely perplexed at it all, an apt representative of the society towards which the emigrants travel.
One of the questions which the book poses is, 'What explains the West Indian emigrant?' The answer which it suggests can be found in the themes on which it is written. Those themes are stated in the epigrams. West Indian history has bred 'no people in the true sense of the word, with a character and purpose of their own'. The West Indian experience, as Naipaul has expressed it, is not a fusion or coalition of cultures to enhance their separate excellences, but their degradation to a new norm of anarchy. Naipaul uses Trinidad as an example of all that is degrading in the West Indian experience and, because of this, is in a sense not writing about Trinidad at all. He is writing an essay on the horrors of acculturation, and an explanation of why he had to escape. He sees only what was destroyed in the West Indies.
How can the history of this West Indian futility be written?… The history of these islands can never be satisfactorily told … History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.
Naipaul sees the West Indies as a rubbish-heap. It is a despairing image to choose. This explains the sublimated bitterness which lies behind his laughter whenever he observes the East Indian conforming to the pattern of West Indian history; joining the Negro-Creoles in their quest for 'whiteness'. Perhaps the most delicate and ruthless of his stories is the "Christmas Story," where an East Indian is made to describe the process of his acculturation and, supremely ignorant of the fact, becomes the mouthpiece of his own degradation. He is a teacher who adopts the Christian faith when he realizes that this is the only way to gain promotion in a school managed by the Church. He is not given the cynical awareness of a Ganesh as he outlines the stages of his acculturation, but naively declares that he has buried his East Indian past, and refers to other Indians as 'these people' or 'the others'. Behind the "Christmas Story" and The Middle Passage is a bitter despair of the whole colonial process and an implicit rejection of the colonial experience, which expresses itself in irony and in contempt for all things West Indian.
The city throbbed with steel-bands. A good opening line for a novelist or travel writer, but the steel-band had long been regarded as a high manifestation of West Indian culture, and it was a sound I detested.
The land of the Calypso is not a copy-writer's phrase. It is one side of the truth, and it was this gaiety, so inexplicable to the tourist who sees the shacks of Shanty Town and the corbeaux patrolling the modern highway, and inexplicable to me who had remembered it as the land of failures, which now, on my return, assaulted me.
It is apparently beyond Naipaul to be able to understand why there is music in spite of the rubbish-heap, and to recognize in such merry-making not merely cynical indifference to the dunghill, but evidence of an affirmation and vibrancy of life, however crude. Such recognition requires not brutality and subtlety, which he points out as the special gifts of the satirist, but the entirely different talents of delicacy, tenderness and a quality of intimacy. In Miguel Street, in spite of the fact that the boy eventually rejects the rubbish-heap, there is a sympathy for its inhabitants, and an implicit recognition of the positives of this world. This is why parts of The Middle Passage strike one as superficial, and a retrogression in sensibility.
Sometimes one wonders at Naipaul's hypersensitivity and asks oneself whether the neurosis is completely controlled by the irony. Is not this complete acquiescence with Froude that there are 'No people there in the true sense of the word', a formula for evading the complex sympathy which the West Indian experience seems to demand? I stated above that what appears to Lamming as a conscious struggle on Naipaul's part to adopt the standards of a 'superior' metropolitan culture, is explicable as a too easy acquiescence with European historians; they assumed that the 'native' was an inferior animal and consequently failed to look for positives in his society. Perhaps it is easier to see Trinidad as an historical rubbish-heap and a sociological abstraction; easier to see evidence in every observed and carefully chosen detail of some deep-seated social malaise which justifies one's neurosis; easier than to see the country as a vast Miguel Street of individuals, people in a truer sense of the word than Froude seems to have been aware of, each making demands on one's imaginative sympathy, because of the unique history which each has endured.
Naipaul's hatred of the steel band and all it indicates is no mere rejection of West Indian culture, but a rejection of the single common ground where Trinidadians of all races meet on a basis of equality. Carnival in Trinidad, dominated by steel-band, calypso and costume, is more than a time of general merry-making. One can, without naively propounding a West Indian version of the myth of the happy Negro, recognize Carnival as one of the few symbols, however tenuous, of a oneness in the Trinidadian people. Naipaul can show us how both Indians and Negroes despise each other in a monkey-like struggle to ape standards of pseudo-whiteness. But he rejects as crude, noisy and unsophisticated the sole symbol of their miscibility, the one sign that the people themselves are reconstructing something to take the place of the personality which history destroyed.
A similar shortcoming manifests itself in what Naipaul has to say about the Negro. He is able to recognize Negro self-contempt as a product of history, to see the historical inferiority complex as the central dilemma of Creole culture. But he does not understand the Negro's attempt at reconstructing something to take the place of his lost dignity.
The involvement of the Negro with the white world is one of the limitations of West Indian writing, as it is the destruction of American Negro writing. The American Negro's subject is his blackness. This cannot be the basis of any serious literature, and it has happened again and again that once the American Negro has made his statement, his profitable protest, he has nothing to say.
The obvious comment is that where one's blackness means something very definite, it can become the basis of the most serious literature. And much as one accepts Naipaul's point that protest literature can become a sterile and stereotyped posturing in the name of blackness, one also realizes that protest against the past is a vital transitional stage in the reconstruction of a sense of personality. Naipaul does not realize that in treating the theme of East Indian acculturation, and the reconstruction of the Indian personality in the New World, he is at one with Negro writers who are also trying to reconstruct personality, and is writing a most vital portion of the sensitive history of the West Indies. Naipaul's Mr Biswas rebels because his society denies him personality and forces him to live with an inferiority complex and a sense of nonentity. Negro writers, in the Caribbean or America, protest because their society annihilated identity. Both in the case of Mr Biswas and the negro of the New World, underprivilege is struggling to build its symbolic house against overwhelming odds.
A House for Mr Biswas is more profound than anything else Naipaul has written because, for the first time, he is able to feel his own history not merely as a squalid farce, but as an adventure in sensibility. Mr Biswas has nothing to recommend him except a talent for sign-painting, and the fact that he is a Brahmin and therefore an accessible target for Hindu snobbery. These qualities together land him in trouble. For it is while he is painting decorations at the Tulsi store, that he is detected passing a love note to one of the Tulsi daughters. When summoned before Mrs Tulsi and her right-hand man Seth, he allows himself to be brow-beaten into marriage and spends the rest of his life fighting to be independent of the Tulsis. His ambition is to build a house of his own.
The book can be interpreted on several levels. There is the obvious surface level where Biswas can be seen as a second-generation Indian who, although rebelling against his own decaying Hindu world, cannot come to a meaningful compromise with the Creole world of Trinidad. This Creole world comes in only by implication and allusion. The Tulsis refer to it with contempt, although Biswas is quick to point out to them just how degrading a concession they make to it by sending their sons to a Roman Catholic school. Naipaul himself is aware of acculturation in the bilingualism which is now imposed on the East Indian. Hindi remains the language of intimacy but, by the end of the book, Mr Biswas has for years been a journalist writing in English, and the readers and learners all speak Creole.
In An Area of Darkness Naipaul writes thus of the East Indian confrontation with the Creole world:
Into this alienness we daily ventured, and at length we were absorbed into it. But we knew that there had been change, gain, loss. We knew that something which was once whole had been washed away. What was whole was the idea of India.
The Hindu world soon becomes the world Naipaul describes in The Middle Passage:
an enclosing self-sufficient world absorbed with its quarrels and jealousies, as difficult for the outsider to penetrate as for one of its own members to escape. It protected and imprisoned, a static world, awaiting decay.
Since the society offers him two equally terrible nightmares, isolation and non-identification are the only alternatives left to Biswas. The two houses which he builds and has to abandon are built in inhospitable waste-lands far from society. 'He had built his own house in a place as wild and out of the way as he could have wished … not seeming to invite habitation so much as decay.' But rejection of his Hindu roots proves a formidable task, and the Biswas who, as a boy contemptuously spurns this dead ritualistic life, mutters 'Rama, Rama, Sita, Rama' during the storm. At the most acute moment of crisis, the old ritual is what reasserts itself. It is a sign of Naipaul's complete control that even in this little detail he is not found wanting. A House for Mr Biswas moves far beyond preoccupations with race or the Hindu world in Trinidad, and depicts a classic struggle for personality against a society that denies it. But the book is only able to do so because this narrow, enclosed Hindu world has been established with such fidelity and completeness.
Naipaul establishes this world with such consistency that it becomes symbolic of darkness, stagnation and decay. Hanuman House, the home of the Tulsis, is an
alien white fortress, bulky, impregnable and blank … windowless … slightly sinister…. The kitchen … was lower than the hall and completely without light. The doorway gaped black … blackness seemed to fill the kitchen like a solid substance.
Every other Tulsi home is like this. There is the shop at The Chase where 'the walls were black and fluffy with soot as though a new species of spider had been bred there', the barracks at Green Vale, 'The trees darkened the road, their rotting leaves choked the grass gutters. The trees surrounded the barracks'. The Tulsis soon reduce the house at Shorthills to a ramshackle decay; round the house in Port-of-Spain they build a symbolic wall.
The term 'barracks' suggests the regimentation of life which Biswas fights until he builds a house of his own. Biswas's rebellion can be read as the rebellion of an individual against a communal way of life. Hanuman House, symbolically presided over by the monkey-god, is described as a 'communal organization' whose maintenance depends on a recognition of authority by, and a denial of personality to the ruled. As soon as Tulsi autocracy becomes weak, the whole system disintegrates, and one has the anarchy of the Shorthills episode, where the naked self-interest behind Tulsi ritual manifests itself, and life returns to the law of the jungle as the beauty and luxuriance of the land are wantonly despoiled.
In this decaying paradise of totalitarianism, Biswas the individualist is described as 'serpent' and 'spy'. As he appears before 'the family tribunal' Seth describes the nature of the crime which he has committed. 'This house is like a republic already.' The argument which the Tulsis employ against him is the eternal argument of totalitarianism; namely, that the individual is meaningless if he tries to be independent of the system. The Tulsis try to make Biswas aware of the fact that he has come to them with no material possessions and argue that he is therefore a nonentity who can only gain significance if he surrenders to them. Tulsidom depends for its existence on the psychic emasculation of the men and on the maintenance of their sense of inferiority. At the most humiliating moments of his struggle, Biswas nearly surrenders to this sense of inferiority. It is seen by Naipaul as a surrender to darkness and chaos.
It is worth pointing out that the traditional Hindu custom requires the bride to join her husband's household and become almost a servant of her mother-in-law. The complete humiliation of Biswas's position is that he has to assume the ritualistic role of the newly married Hindu girl. Thus his is a rebellion against complete humiliation in the eyes of society, and against nonentity in an entire and comprehensive sense. It is interesting to note the honesty and care with which this rebellion is depicted. Initially Biswas enjoys it. It exhilarates him. But it soon becomes a vicious and bitter struggle, fought with invective, saliva and scorn. Indeed, Biswas is at times petty, cowardly and contemptible, and part of the book's triumph is that Naipaul has been able to present a hero in all his littleness, and still preserve a sense of the man's inner dignity.
As the rebellion progresses, Biswas finds that 'All his joy had turned into disgust at his condition'. This happens one morning as he realizes his irrelevance to the Tulsi scene. If he were to disappear, the ritual would still go on. He therefore realizes that rebellion for rebellion's sake is not enough, and must coincide with the positive act of constructing something new to take the place of the old life one repudiates.
For the present, however, he merely seeks to emancipate himself from Hanuman House, and is sent to The Chase, a Tulsi outpost in a remote area. But when, for the first time since marriage, he confronts life outside Hanuman House, Biswas finds himself afraid of the freedom which his rebellion has won him. Like so many protest politicians, he fails initially when required to be constructive—'How lonely the shop was! And how frightening!… afraid to disturb the silence, afraid to open the door of the shop, to step into the light….' A House for Mr Biswas can be read as a book which probes the relationship between rebellion and independence. True independence, it is revealed, does not immediately follow rebellion; true personality does not immediately follow emancipation, but must be constructed in a lifetime of painful struggle and retrogression. What does follow emancipation is a dark 'void' which Biswas must learn to face before he can 'step into the light'. It takes him all his life to fight the void and whatever graciousness life has to offer comes late, when he has almost lost the capacity to enjoy it. His victory lies in the fact that he has remained himself.
The house, which Mr Biswas determines to build as soon as he sees the Tulsi barracks at Green Vale, is more than a place where he can live. It is his personality symbolized, the private individuality which he must both build and maintain against the rest of the world. The development in Mr Biswas's house parallels at all points his development as a person. We are reminded of the destructive power of the Tulsis in the scene where Shama, acting as the agent of their malice, smashes the doll's house which Biswas buys for his daughter. It is described as if it were a body torn apart.
None of its parts was whole. Its delicate joints were exposed and useless. Below the torn skin of paint … the hacked and splintered wood was white and raw.
The scene is rendered with complete naturalness and sensitive force and its point is clear. Anything which manifests individuality and difference causes dread, envy and hostility in Hanuman House. The reaction of the Tulsis to the doll's house is a measure of the terrible revenge which this 'communal organization' can take on one who dares to be individual.
The book can be interpreted on a metaphysical level, since it questions the basis and meaning of personality. An interesting ambivalence emerges from the book. Firstly there is the dependence of the individual upon society for his sense of being; where by society one means not only other people, but a whole concrete world with which the consciousness establishes some deep intimacy, and claims as its own. As soon as Biswas 'stepped out of the yard, he returned to nonentity'. Outside Tulsi society he is lost. Secondly there is the necessary rebellion which the individual must make against society and the void which must be confronted. In the void are meaninglessness, nonentity, fear, lunacy and chaos, the storm within and the storm without. It is out of this confrontation that the new personality grows.
In many ways Biswas is an archetypal figure. He is described as stranger, visitor and wanderer. Weak, and frequently absurd, he is recognized in Hanuman House as a buffoon, and the role of fool is one which he at times accepts in humiliation and at others rejects with bitterness. But Biswas the clown is also Biswas the rebel. He is also man the artist, and his art is the only aspect of him that the Tulsis really admire, not realizing that it is an expression of the very personality they detest. Whenever Biswas is attacked by the sense of life as meaningless void, he immediately turns to his paint brushes and tries to create something against the emptiness. Perhaps he himself gives the best definition of his significance. To his bewildered son who asks him, 'Who are you?' he replies, 'I am just somebody. Nobody at all. I am just a man you know.' Biswas is Everyman, wavering between identity and nonentity, and claiming his acquaintance with the rest of men.
The book is powerfully symbolic, but it is never crudely or obtrusively so. If Biswas represents all the things I feel he does, it is because he is fully presented as a person whose every quirk and idiosyncracy we know, in a world whose every sight, sound and smell is recorded with fidelity and precision. Whatever is suggested of the numinous and universal, is conveyed through a fidelity to the concrete and particular. Landscape and life are not treated as isolated, but both conform to the artist's unity of purpose. Description is organically employed to reinforce theme. In the end, nature which, when associated with the Tulsis, took the form of jungle, nettle and weed surrounding The Chase, or decaying leaves on half-dead trees surrounding Green Vale, or the landslide at Shorthills, manifests itself in the coolness of the laburnum, and the scent of the lily in Mr Biswas's yard. His house may be dangerously cracked in places, but because it is his own, there is grace in its grotesqueness.
Ostensibly preoccupied with the present, Naipaul observes acculturation as a timeless feature of the West Indian experience which he never really accepts. Like the boy in Miguel Street, he rejects the rubbish-heap. Like Mr Biswas, he rejects Hanuman House. Rejecting Hanuman House and Miguel Street as two sides of the greater nightmare of being an Indian in Trinidad, he seeks the freedom of the independent personality, and makes the difficult choice of exile and dispossession. There are few pleasures in his exile. Yet out of it grow irony and a necessary detachment from the nightmare.
So later, and very slowly, in securer times of different stresses, when the memories had lost the power to hurt, with pain or joy, they would fall into place and give back the past.
How can the history of this West Indian futility be written?
This finally is the question which Naipaul, and which perhaps every serious West Indian writer, asks, as he wonders what qualities of mind and feeling are necessary in order to face the West Indian experience. The answer which Naipaul ventures in The Middle Passage relates to the problem of West Indian creative writing, as well as to the writing of West Indian history as an academic pursuit. West Indian history can never be satisfactorily told, he says, because nothing was created in the West Indies, where there is neither achievement, nor a tradition of accepted values. Yet in Miguel Street and A House for Mr Biswas he tells a vital part of West Indian history, for the books are a sensitive presentation of the history of underprivilege. The worth of his irony is that it enables him to examine his past without any sentimental self-indulgence. We see Biswas as a full human being who is as weak and contemptible as he is forceful and admirable. Irony enables Naipaul to get down to the bare humanity beneath his history. Because he is dealing with his own personal past, his irony does not preclude sympathy but reinforces it. He is able to answer in terms of creative sensibility a question to which he could find no satisfactory academic answer.
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