Miguel Street (1959) is the first novel that V S Naipaul’s first written novel wrote, though it was published third: after Mystic Masseur (1957) and The Suffrage of Elvira (1958). Naipaul, the Nobel Prize winner in Literature has also won the Booker Prize award in 1971 for his collection of two short stories and a novella, “In a free State”. Miguel Street is Naipaul’s semi-autobiographical account of his childhood home, Trinidad. Miguel Street is in fact an “insider” account of the inherent absurdity that heavily characterizes the lives of Trinidadians. The structure of the novel is layered and suggests that Naipaul might have been inspired from the people he had encountered in his childhood days in Trinidad.
The novel is set in a poor neighbourhood around the Miguel Street in Port of Spain, Trinidad, circa the World War II. The story is narrated by a precocious and keenly observant boy, who recounts the myriad lives of quirky inhabitants of his neighbourhood in a witty yet innocent way. The narrator’s tone is both detached and keenly observant at the same time. There is no semblance of plot till the very last chapters, when the plot talks about the narrator himself and his relationship with few other important characters. The novel can also be seen as short stories collection, as each chapter strands across years and talks about one character at a time; but even if each chapter are decidedly dedicated for a single character, the close intertwining of fate of the different characters and the Street itself blinds the discontinuity and renders us the delectable feel of a novel.
The language of Miguel Street is timeless and amusing. Naipaul not only uses the innocent tone of the narrator to give an objective picture but also uses other characters to create some crackling wit and laugh out loud moments. The Caribbean calypso is used subtly to bring out ironic humour. One of the funny calypsos in the book:
“Chinese children calling me Daddy!
I black like jet.
My wife like tar-baby,
Chinese children calling me Daddy!
Oh God, somebody putting milk in my coffee.”
As with most Naipaul novels, the setting of the novel is not described explicitly, but it is rather allowed to grow along with the characters and the plot. Though this makes Naipaul’s novels a little difficult to follow in the first few chapters, the settings and imagery develops richly as the plot moves along. The pace of the novel is flat and the structure a little monotonous mid-way, but Naipaul keeps us going with his sheer humour.