Nov 4, 2007

Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul

Miguel Street is the first work by Nobel Prize winning author V.S. Naipaul (although not the first to be published). It is a semi-autobiographical collection of short stories interconnected by a common unnamed narrator: a young boy, growing up in Miguel Street – a street in a poor area of the city of Port of Spain, in the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago – around the time of WW2.

At the start of one of the stories, the narrator tells us: A stranger could drive through Miguel Street and just say ‘slum’, because he could see no more. But we, who lived there, saw our street as a world, where everybody was quite different from everybody else.

Indeed, each of the book's chapters tells a story about one of the inhabitants of Miguel Street – a story about an ordinary life filled with details that make it memorable and unique.

The narrator of these stories reminded me a little of Harper Lee’s Scout. The fact that he is a child allows him to see things that most of those who surround him don’t see. The stories are simple ones, and many are moving exactly because of that simplicity. My favourite was “B. Wordsworth”, a touching story about the young narrator’s friendship with an old man, a poet. Another favourite was the very last chapter, in which he tells us how he left Miguel Street forever, to study in England.

The stories are told from a point in the future after this departure, and thus they are filled with nostalgia for something that was lost. But this is a kind of nostalgia that does not romanticize things. He sees the flaws in the people who surround him, in his city, in his home country. The stories depict both poverty and a great sense of community, both love and domestic violence, both greatness and failure. But even when the darker sides of life are being described, there is always a great amount of tenderness behind every word.

Reading these stories made me miss a place I’ve never been to; it made me mourn the absence of people I’ve never met; it made me tear-up as much as it made me laugh. This is the second book I’ve read by Naipaul, and most definitely not the last.

18 comments:

3M said...

Thanks for the review. I've been wanting to read something by Naipaul. I may choose this one.

Nymeth said...

Hi 3m :)

I actually think this book would be a good introduction to Naipul. Of course, I've only read 2, so there might be others that work better, but I've heard people say that some of his novels drag a little, and that's not the case at all with this book. It's short and a joy to read, and a good way to see what his writing is like.

Chris said...

This one sounds very cool. I read In A Free State about 6 years ago and I still remember that novel very clearly. It was a haunting book and I just realized that I must have lost my copy. I'll have to get another one. I'll pick this one up too.

Eva said...

Ohhh-I've mooched this based on your review. I've been meaning to get to Naipaul for awhile, and this is the kick I needed!

Rhinoa said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I am loving short stories at the moment so may give it a go.

Nymeth said...

Chris: I need to read In a Free State next. I really like the way he writes, so I definitely need to read more of his books. Do pick this one up, I think you'll enjoy it.

Eva: yay! I hope you like it!

Rhinoa: I guess this one is part short story collection, part novel. But the individual chapters do work as short stories. It's a great book.

Lotus Reads said...

Reading these stories made me miss a place I’ve never been to; it made me mourn the absence of people I’ve never met; it made me tear-up as much as it made me laugh.

I want to feel that way too! You make this book sound like an excellent read Nymeth...I will have to pick it up!

What was the first book by Naipaul that you read? I have read "The Mystic Masseur" but I wasn't so impressed. It probably has less to do with the book and more to do with my frame of mind at that time. I think it's time for me to try another Naipaul and this book is probably going to be the one I pick!

I have "The Middle Passage" sitting on my bookshelf at the moment. It is a book on travel writing and based on a return visit to the Caribeean some years after he first left.

Lightheaded said...

This is a lovely take on the book that now I want to read Naipaul! I haven't read him yet. Now I'm sure to look him up next time I visit a bookstore.

Petunia said...

I tsounds like the kind of book I want to write, or more like the book I am writing for NaNoWriMo. I will be seeking it out. Thanks for the great review.

Nymeth said...

Lotus: It was "Finding the Centre". It's a non-fiction book with two essays. The first is about the process of writing "Miguel Street", and the second is about a visit to the Ivory Coast. I enjoyed both, but the first was especially fascinating. It was the reason why I picked up Miguel Street, actually. Of course, it makes a lot more sense to read it first, but at the time I didn't know that. "The Middle Passage" sounds interesting too - I'm going to have to look for it.

Lightheaded: I hope you enjoy this when you get to it :)

Petunia: Good luck with NaNoWriMo! It sounds like your book will be great!

Anonymous said...

Miguel Street is absolutely great, A House for Mr. Biswas as superb, A bed in the River was a drag.

Anonymous said...

hi, anyone who have read Miguel Street by V.S Naipaul. Please add me aligajani@hotmail.com. I want to discuss some things regarding the story for my understanding of the novel.

jazze said...

Laban Erapu said "Naipaul stresses the point that in a society like this, which has not yet defined its goals, the individual is limited to the extent of never being able to achieve fulfllment in life". agree or not comment your point of view.

Quixotic said...

yes i ca understand Naipaul's nostalgia and yours too. I just finished reading his Biography -"The world is what it is" one of the best book i can say i have ever read. Since his ancestor came from the place my family come in north India and I lived in Bombay in similar circumstances, i can understand his way of seeing and feeling and thats why may be I feel he is the best writer i have read of all my reading.

Even his criticism and disparaging remarks come out of deep caring which people misunderstand.

Kingwa Kamencu said...

Miguel Street is to me Naipaul's best work. He's very good at characterization, showing the different kinds of people on the street with their quirks and their uniquenesses which are more often than not sad and a bit heartbreaking. He doesn't make fun of them or patronise them, rather he just presents them as real human beings and it comes out more powerfully when he shows how what thay are is a product of their environment and not because they choose to be ridiculous. He writes with love and depth and understanding. I liked the mechanical genius guy and felt so bad for that kid that kept on having to repeat his exams and school and forfeit all his grand dreams.... man, a beautiful book. I found Mystic Massuer and House for Mr. Biswas a bit dull. Thanks for this review, i like your blog

Anonymous said...

note to the editor of this blog.. you spelt Tobago wrong... if it meant alot you should of gotten the correct spelling of the island : Trinidad and Tobago darling!

Nymeth said...

Oops - thanks for bringing that to my attention, anon. Fixed.

Krish Datt said...

I loved this book..as it reminded me of my childhood stories when I was growing in Fiji..a similar kind of background where immigrant Indians were living with the native fijians. Infact, this a literature book in grade 11 and it was fun..some hindi phrases and names seemed very kool. I would love to visit Trinidad & Tobago sumday,...cheers.