This is an introspective read. Julian Barnes cleverly steers you towards the truth while questioning the role and shape of memories. Just how much can you trust them? How coloured are they by your biases, self preservation and perspective? Is history truly how we remember it? Divorced and retired now, an unexpected letter from a lawyer forces Tony Webster back memory lane, stirring up some uncomfortable memories. The bequest of his friend Adrian Finn’s diary is puzzling to him given that he died by suicide back in college. At the same time, it reopens old wounds, his feelings for his ex-girlfriend Vernoica, and the betrayal of her and Adrian getting together.
He can’t fathom Veronica’s efforts to keep the diary from him even as he is grateful that he broke things off with her. She was always judgemental, looked down on his choices and was mean to him. He barely remembers the reply he wrote to Adrian on learning of their relationship. There was some bitterness sure, a warning to his friend to be careful of Veronica’s manipulative ways as far as he can recollect. Handed over the letter after all these years, he can’t believe the inherent malice and the intent to hurt. Was this really him? As he learns the truth behind Veronica’s loathing, he can scarcely believe how his words changed the lives of those two families. Truth, the unvarnished kind, is often brutal. Read this book not just because it won the Booker Prize but because it makes you pause and reflect.
Considered unlucky, forced to leave home after the death of his father, this is a tale of a man’s pursuit of his “his portion of earth” and independence. At Pagotes, it is Tara, his mother’s rich sister, who dictates his life. In trying to run away from her, Mr Biswas finds himself in the grasp of the Tulsis, a Hindu joint family settled for long in Trinidad. Painting sign boards at Tulsis’ Hanuman house is how he meets his wife Shama. His acerbic relationship with the Tulsis marks the rest of his life. His revolts and outbursts against them and their ways sees him moved to Chase, Green Vale, Port of Spain and Shorthills where the Tulsis hold property.
The family is at once a safety nest and a place to escape for Mr Biswas. When his modest attempts of a home burn down he is forced back to the family fold. The incidents hurt his pride, plunge him into depression, but unwittingly lead him to a job as a journalist, making him partly free from the influence and the hold of the Tulsis. One altercation finally leads him to Sikkim Street and a house of his own. Mr Biswas’ life is far from encouraging or inspiring though – his relationship with others, especially his family, assertion of pride, quest for meaning leaves a lot to be desired. Moreover, the extremely slow retelling of events by V.S. Naipaul makes it difficult to persist with the book at length. Said to be part autobiographical, with Mr Biswas based on Naipaul’s father, and an important work by the author, it takes a lot of will to finish this book.