A House for Mr Biswas, published in 1961, is one of the imperishable novels of the 20th century: Teju Cole

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NaipaulA House for Mr Biswas is episodic and packed with conflict. Mr Biswas subverts heroic convention: he is smart and funny, but also often petulant, mean and unsympathetic. His enemies, who are mostly his relatives, are largely unlikable, but they also have their admirable moments. The narrative of the novel is propelled by a clear goal – the acquisition of the titular house – which, it becomes apparent, can only be achieved by the most exhaustively circuitous route. It is a novel of epic length, formal perfection, and contains two notable peculiarities: its setting, which, being domestic, is unusual for an epic; and its geographical location, Trinidad, an important island in the Caribbean but not a particularly influential one on the world stage. And yet, this severely delimited context gave VS Naipaul an entire world of experience and feeling on which to draw. A House for Mr Biswas, published in 1961, is one of the imperishable novels of the 20th century.

From his birth until his untimely death 46 years later, Mr Biswas mostly lives in a series of houses that either do not belong to him or are houses unworthy of the name. Each of these houses is for Mr Biswas an attempt at solving a problem, and each is a wrong answer in a different way. Mr Biswas is like a figure out of myth – and indeed his birth is attended by negative portents and dour prophecies; he is declared to be “born in the wrong way”, seems doomed to live through each of these futile iterations before his destiny can be complete. The pointlessness and the wasted effort of these dead-end attempts give the novel a comic edge that links it both to picaresque and to the existentialist tradition.

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Author: Zafar Anjum

I am a writer based in Singapore.

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