Think you don’t have time for books? The Short Read is a Pi Arts & Culture column celebrating ‘novellas’ and ‘nonellas’: pocket-sized great works of fiction and non-fiction. In this article, Kirese Narinesingh looks at Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul (176 pages).
“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.”
Those lines, to me, epitomise the thrust of this book of short stories, as well as V.S. Naipaul’s true intent, in his first splash into fiction writing. Like me, Naipaul grew up on a small island in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago, where he spent most of his childhood in Luis Street, a small community that provides the basis of the fictional Miguel Street. Here, the first-person narrator (understood to be Naipaul) grew up, and he now recollects his childhood memories of Miguel Street and the inhabitants who made it memorable.
To the outsider, Miguel Street is a ‘slum’, no doubt about that. But this is a narrow-minded perspective, which Naipaul denigrates through his illustration of the world of Miguel Street – a microcosm of life in Trinidad, which no one, save its residents, could comprehend for its true diversity and complexity of people. After all, these short stories are all linked by this thread that runs seamlessly throughout: the people, and each of their individual stories.
I admit that I was surprised by how accurate Naipaul’s depiction of Trinidad is. It is so personal, the way he explores minute details and even the psychologies of his neighbours: their achievements and their failures, and their interactions with each other. We meet, for instance, the unforgettable Big Foot, the most feared man in Miguel Street, who hides his cowardice through a veneer of bravado, and B. Wordsworth, the tragic poet, with whom Naipaul forms an artist’s bond.
His language is also superbly witty: he relies most on dialogue between the residents, and implements the easy-going humour and dialect so effortlessly, employing it as well as the best of the English writers. And he goes one step further: he relays both the tragic and the comic, intricately blending them together, meshing them into the most potent form of realism. I found myself laughing constantly throughout this book, partly out of sheer joy at the dialogue which is so resonant of Caribbean humour – “You think you is man. Yes, is you I talking to, you with your bottom like two stale bread in you pants.” – and partly because of the atmosphere of familiarity he creates, making the reader herself one of the Miguel Street residents.
Not many writers are able to write about the perceived ‘common man’, but Naipaul realises that, in fact, there is no ‘common man’. The term is derogatory, conveying a one-dimensional simplicity he refuses to partake in. He navigates the goings-on of the inhabitants of Miguel Street, the people he grew up with, yet he does not make them into simple caricatures of thin-dimensions. He knows they are more complex than that, that their lives are not purely comical situations, but the real lives of real people who he knew, and now commemorates.
When I mention the name ‘V.S. Naipaul’, to anyone who is not from the Caribbean, I usually get a puzzled look, and an immediate admittance that they have no knowledge of whoever that is. My response drifts between “Get cultured” and “Read Miguel Street.” The latter would be the most reasonable compromise.