“Miguel Street” by V.S. Naipaul


by Ella

         Books like these are brilliant and dangerous. VS Naipaul’s fictional tales cover topics of any society like skin tone, family structure, education, drugs, war, relationships, government, etc. While it provides an eery insight into the mind of the impoverished, it’s dangerous in making one assume that is is what Trinidadians are like. I don’t know many, but the good in my heart doesn’t want to accept that the culture promotes that idea that the only way to make someone learn is with violence. Really, this is the story of growing up in any hood – you watch the people around you, because they all seem to take the same paths. You witness those you loves go through us and downs, and hopefully someone who loves you is praying that you end up better. Hopefully, you find a way out. And… education seems to be the key.

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      I didn’t know a thing about Trinadad and Tobago. & with all the 2014 uproar, I was surprised to see how close it is to Venezuela.  I’m an American, and I know so little about my geography, I wasn’t even quite sure if it was one land mass or not (it’s not, Trinidad is a pretty big island, Tobago is smaller). Thanks to VS Naipaul, I know about the country as well as bits of it’s history and some of its culture.

         The choppy language of colonized islanders makes the book a fast read. The story also moves along quite swiftly because the main character (a young boy whose name we never know, but tells the story in first-person) is a member of the community. While most things might be bizarre to us (like a man regularly beating his wife with a  cricket bat), are commonplace to him. As the New York Times put it, the most disturbing stories are “are written lightly, so that tragedy is understated and comedy is overstated, yet the ring of truth always prevails.” By the end of the story, we learn to accept what is what, meanwhile we pray they all find a way out. The most honest truth this book provides is this: not everyone makes it out, especially not those who you think might.

Original cover - 1959Original cover - 1959

Original cover – 1959

       The feel of the book is like we’ve just arrived on Miguel Street, and this young boys is giving us a tour of his hood. Each chapter describes a different person or family, with a recount of their history and the most memorable aspect about them. While we learn the gritty and the ugly, we also learn what mead these people human. Uncle Bhakcu, for example, is the one who would beat his wife with the cricket bat (because she was too plump and it was the only thing she would feel). This same uncle (who was uncle to no one, just called that) enjoyed fixing cars and reading the Ramayana. And even though he beat his wife (for sticking up for him when he didn’t ask her to) she was such a good wife, that she would make sure to wax and oil the cricket bat before he beat her with it. Bizarre, right?  The violence lives throughout the entire story. We hear about families with drunk men at the heads who would beat their families publicly, just to impress the neighborhood. We read about a woman with 8 children by 7 different men, who beat the last one until he left but was a great mother to her children (aside from her great use of foul language). We learn of a brilliant people trying to measure brilliance. We learn to judge people honestly, but not hold those things against them.

     Throughout the book is a constant feeling of solidarity. No matter how terrible life was on Miguel Street (a good job was sweeping garbage from the street, the best job was picking up garbage from rich neighborhoods) we feel like there is no better place to be. The better neighborhood, St. Claire, if full of faithless, loose women who leave their husbands for the thrill, then run back home when things get too rough –which they always do.  The book seems sad. We join the narrator as he tells us everyone else’s stories of semi-success and ultimate failure, but we only get a piece of his. In the final chapter, we learn that he resorts to doing what the others do and becomes “too wild” drinking, smoking and frequenting whore-houses (“brothels”, if we don’t want to hurt feelings). Eventually, his mother finds him a way to study in abroad, and he takes the opportunity. At first, he’s hesitant to go, but as he takes another look, he realizes that those things will always be the same, and it’s time for him to change.

I really enjoyed this book and hope to pick up some more of Naipaul’s stories. He was born in Trinidad, to Indian parents so I think his view on the world might be much different than any I’ve been able to witness. I love books that take me out of my comfort zone and place me in a world I’ve never known. Stories like these make me feel less alone. Sick as it sounds, sometimes it helps to know that there are people worse off than you. Their stories of success (or failure) can encourage you to think about your footsteps and decide where you want to go in life. Books are amazing in this way.

Hope you’re getting your read on 😉

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