A House for Mr. Biswas was V. S. Naipaul’s fourth novel, following three earlier efforts that were essentially all comedies of manners set in the author’s homeland of Trinidad. In the case of global recognition and near-universal acclaim, it turned out that the fourth time was the charm for Naipaul. Also predominantly a comic novel, the story of the novel that made Naipaul a major figure in world literature was inspired by the story of his own father.
That character, Mr. Biswas, is charted over a 50 year history with a backdrop of significant cultural changes in Trinidad, the most ethnically diverse nation in the Caribbean. His story represents for his creator a great leap forward over his previous three book as it widely recognized as the first work by Naipaul which deserves serious recognition as his masterwork. The Modern Library certainly thought it was deserving at least of that accolade in 1998 when A House for Mr. Biswas made the organization’s list of the best 100 novels in the English language.
An attempt to adapt the novel into a stage musical in 1961 failed, but the experience provided one of the all-time weird entertainment ironies. Though set in Trinidad, the characters—like Naipaul’s family—are immigrants from India, thus making their way from one British colony to another. When the musical production collapse, composer Monty Norman refashioned the tune for a song called “Bad Sign, Good Sign” into the theme for a new movie based on a popular series of novels about a very British secret agent. And so a song originally written to illuminate the condition of those living under the auspices of British imperialism became the instantly recognized theme for perhaps the second most famous 20th century icon of that imperialist nation: Bond, James Bond.