In my world of books, Classics always have that special place. It is not to be consumed every day, but occasionally when I chance upon a classic, it heals my heart and opens my eyes. Recently I received VS Naipaul’s “Miguel Street” as a gift. Needless to say, it has left a permanent imprint on my bookish memories.
Plot in short
“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. Man-man was mad; George was stupid; Big Foot was a bully; Hat was an adventurer; Popo was a philosopher, and Morgan was our comedian.”
― V.S. Naipaul, Miguel Street
I think there is no sentence that sums the book up better. It is a series of linked short stories about a fictitious street in wartime Trinidad and Tobago under British colonialism. Each story depicts a picture of a character in the street. There is Popo the carpenter who was on a quest to “build that thing without a name”, there was Big Foot the bully, who was actually quite sensitive, there was Morgan the comedian, whose own life was not that happy, and there was Titus Hoyt who believed in the power of education. These characters in every story are starkly different from one another, each going through their own struggles, however, they are all tied together in a string of circumstances that rendered them very similar and empathetic towards one another.
The first thing that struck me as I went through the pages of the book is the simplicity. There is nothing exceptional happening anywhere, however, if you think Miguel Street stands out in every aspect. It depicts a picture of a unique as well as a universal picture of humanity that all of us can relate to. The stories are narrated through the eyes of a young boy. I think the author has carefully kept the narrator undefined while telling us a lot about him. We do not know his name or details about his story, but we do know his friends, who he liked and how he wondered even though he grew up in the war-torn Miguel Street.
Each character in the story is branded by the society. Someone is mad, someone is a bully, someone is a comedian, while someone is a philosopher. But through his observant eyes, the boy shows us that how we perceive someone may not be the truth at all. Most of the characters did many “bad” things.. hey stole, they beat up people, they held prostitution rackets or bribed or cheated. However, through the author’s eyes, we get a glimpse of the “Why”s behind the “what”s. And in the end, I kept wondering if the “bad” people were a result of systemic oppression…
It is a dark novel…it is like a jigsaw puzzle with so many pieces when seen together brings out the complete picture of Miguel Street. I also loved how the name of the book is Miguel Street.. it looks like no matter who they were, it seemed that living in Miguel Street had a lot to do with the people they became. Every tiniest detail in the book has been crafted with the greatest detail and the end product is simplistically exquisite. It is indeed a work of art. Naipaul’s mastery with the word is nothing new to the world. But it did take my breath away. Long after I have closed the last page of the book, the characters will continue to live and haunt my mind for a long time to come.