Big Biswas

biswas.jpgMohun Biswas is you. When you finish reading the last line of V. S. Naipaul's novel A House for Mr. Biswas, you will feel like a part of your body -- your arm maybe, possibly your leg -- has been removed. Lopped off. Severed. The presence of Mr. Biswas, this ornery, feisty, mean, arrogant, flawed man will have so completely taken you over, you will not be the same person ever again. You will be you plus Biswas.

The magic of Naipaul's long novel is that it has life in it. You may not be of Indian descent. You may not be living in Trinidad during the time of English colonialism. You may not be a man. But as soon as you start reading this book, you will be.

On and on its words flow, for hundreds and hundreds of pages. But the intensity does not flag for one comma. And even more impressively, more than just ventriloquism, Naipaul does something that only a book of this power can accomplish -- he lets you be both the person, Biswas, as well a higher intelligence looking at Biswas -- at the same time. It is not sleight of hand (though an encyclopedia's worth of writerly craft must have gone into creating it). This sense of literary schizophrenia is supremely unsettling. You follow Biswas, and at the same time, you scream at this man to not do this, to do that, to ignore this person, to respond to that one. But you can't do anything about it. Comic? Yes. Tragic? Yes. Documentary? Yes.

This book is not new. It was written over forty years ago. But it is as true an expression of literary art as you are ever likely to encounter. As someone once defined art -- news that stays news -- I can't think of a more pure example. It is slow. It is long. It is wordy. And every second is a pleasure, a bath of feelings and thoughts and experiences as real as riding the subway or eating a meal or hearing a baby cry. The real deal.

'Til next time. - Ken Krimstein

Ken

Mr. Krimstein is a professor, writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who lived in NYC for many years, but moved back to Chicago. So there.

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