Book #14. Miguel Street

I am pleased to go back and review this book. I read it once in an advanced English course during my undergraduate and absolutely loved it for its series of alive, frank and sympathetic accounts of the lives of the Third World. Based on my personal experience as a newcomer, it is always inspirational to witness the cultural encounters from different continents and the work of V.S. Naipaul was exactly the right thing.

Naipaul was born in Trinidad and Tobago and studied in England. He has been awarded Man Booker Prize and Nobel Prize for literature for his works that illuminate the legacy of British imperialism and colonialism. This semi-autobiographical short story collection, published early in his career in 1959, has earned him considerable recognition and success as a writer. The 17 short stories are narrated by a nameless young boy, presumably the child version of the author himself, who makes friends with his neighbours in his hometown in Port of Spain.

People in Miguel Street devote themselves in a variety of occupations: tailor (“Bogart”), carpenter (“A Thing Without A Name”), poet (“B. Wordsworth”), student (“His Chosen Calling”), educator (“Titus Hoyt, I.A”), mother (“The Maternal Instinct”), machinist (“The Mechanical Genius“) and religious leader (“Man-Man”). Despite their incredible ambition and passion, they are never able to support themselves with something productive. In a community with degraded sense of morality, community and self-identity, every single one of their own projects are doomed to fall apart in the end.

Elia, the central character in “His Chosen Calling” ends up as a cart driver after failing in every single attempt to obtain school certificate and to become a sanitary inspector. B. Wordsworth dies alone before writing a single line of the “greatest poem ever written.” Titus Hoyt never truly educates any one of his students. Laura, the woman who raises eight children with seven different fathers doesn’t shed a tear over the death of her eldest daughter who was going the same direction as her mother by having a fatherless child. These inhabitants do dream about a better future but they end up totally powerless to rise from the endless poverty, chaos, boredom,  crimes, disappointment and hopelessness that make up the ‘place’ of Miguel Street. The only way to make a positive change was to escape, just like “I” did at the end. 

I was disappointed. Not only by Hat’s cool reception. Disappointed because although I had been away, destined to be gone for good, everything was going on just as before, with nothing to indicate my absence.

…I said to my mother. ‘So this mean I was never going to come back here, eh?’ She laughed and looked happy.

(“How I Left Miguel Street”)

Here’s the analysis I gained from the undergraduate study: the perpetual sense of indifference and inability of the Miguel Street inhabitants comes from their inferior status as the “colonized”: people in Port of Spain derive their daily motivations and sense of pride by mimicking what they deemed as “superior” culture of the “colonizers,” the British and American. Speaking in standard English language and proper accent is something to be looked up and admired. Imitating the habits and appearances of Hollywood actors like Humphrey Bogart or Lax Harrison has become more important for young men than making money to support themselves. No household in the town seems to house a proper functioning family. All those institutions that make up the productive side of life seem to have been seriously demolished in this town: marriage, family, education, occupation, religion and entertainment all drift into some form of violence, crime and self-denial. There was something gravely wrong in the ‘place’ of Miguel Street.  Unable to see the solution, the protagonist flees without any feeling of remorse. How sad is that? Despite the tragedies, the narrator maintains a humorous and comic tone throughout the collection, which makes their tragedies more poignant. … However, I would claim Miguel Street ends happily.

There was a sensational story about a well-known Korean-American violin prodigy who reappears in front of the South Korean public after years of absence. He was seen last Feburary playing his violin in a poorly organized concert in a subway station with a rude host and incompetent guest violinist who clearly did not practice for duet. In the past, he was educated in Juliard and worked with Sony Records. Born as a savant, he was incapable to support himself. There have been speculations about possible beatings and threats done to this man to deteriorate his intelligent capacity. Many South Koreans lamented the lack of appropriate support and care for prodigies and young talents available in the country. Once a victim to the greedy and cruel imperialism, the people in the land have once suffered the grave disease called the sense of ‘inferiority’ but have achieved remarkable success in growing out of it in past decades.  But it seems there are still much left to be done. After all, one cannot succeed by himself in a society that doesn’t support or believe in his dreams.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Book #14. Miguel Street

  1. D

    Good to see another Naipaul fan. Despite the criticism that his later works are cruel and impatient towards the people he left behind, Sir Vidia’s early works are really compassionate. In full disclosure, I also like his later work, but in no way do I see them as objective – they are the work of a mind tortured by loss and migration. I got the sense that at the end of Miguel Street, the narrator’s problems are only beginning. Just wrote about this here: https://roughpassage.wordpress.com/

    • Hi D, thank you for your comment! I’d very much love to read other works by Naipaul and see whether such criticisms were fair. Whether he was cruel or not, I’d still consider his career a blessing that illuminated multicultural and transcontinental insights of life.

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