Miguel Streetby V. S. Naipaul
“A stranger could drive through Miguel Street and just say ‘Slum!’ because he could see no more.” But to its residents this derelict corner of Trinidad’s capital is a complete world, where everybody is quite different from everybody else. There’s Popo the carpenter, who neglects his livelihood to build “the thing without a… See more details below
“A stranger could drive through Miguel Street and just say ‘Slum!’ because he could see no more.” But to its residents this derelict corner of Trinidad’s capital is a complete world, where everybody is quite different from everybody else. There’s Popo the carpenter, who neglects his livelihood to build “the thing without a name.” There’s Man-man, who goes from running for public office to staging his own crucifixion, and the dreaded Big Foot, the bully with glass tear ducts. There’s the lovely Mrs. Hereira, in thrall to her monstrous husband. In this tender, funny early novel, V. S. Naipaul renders their lives (and the legends their neighbors construct around them) with Dickensian verve and Chekhovian compassion.
Set during World War II and narrated by an unnamed–but precociously observant–neighborhood boy, Miguel Street is a work of mercurial mood shifts, by turns sweetly melancholy and anarchically funny. It overflows with life on every page.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
“Miguel Street is the Bowery, the Tenderloin, and the Catfish Row of Trinidad’s Port of Spain–its citizens a loony multitude whose knavery often rises from real kinship with pathos and tragedy. . . . Naipaul is at his best in these swift caricatures of human depravity.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“Amusing and poignant. . . . Excellent reading.” –Chicago Tribune
“Naipaul does not tell stories. By some miraculous sleight-of-hand he takes you to Port of Spain and shows you the rich, bawdy, consequential lives of the Trinidadians, as though there were no intervening veil of words. . . . I rather suspect the mantle of Chekhov has fallen on Mr. Naipaul’s shoulders.” –Robert Payne, Saturday Review
Read an Excerpt
Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, 'What happening there, Bogart?'
Bogart would turn in his bed and mumble softly, so that no one heard, 'What happening there, Hat?'
It was something of a mystery why he was called Bogart; but I suspect that it was Hat who gave him the name. I don't know if you remember the year the film Casablanca was made. That was the year when Bogart's fame spread like fire through Port of Spain and hundreds of young men began adopting the hardboiled Bogartian attitude.
Before they called him Bogart they called him Patience, because he played that game from morn till night. Yet he never liked cards.
Whenever you went over to Bogart's little room you found him sitting on his bed with the cards in seven lines on a small table in front of him.
'What happening there, man?' he would ask quietly, and then he would say nothing for ten or fifteen minutes. And somehow you felt you couldn't really talk to Bogart, he looked so bored and superior. His eyes were small and sleepy. His face was fat and his hair was gleaming black.
His arms were plump. Yet he was not a funny man. He did everything with a captivating languor. Even when he licked his thumb to deal out the cards there was grace in it.
He was the most bored man I ever knew.
He made a pretence of making a living by tailoring, and he had even paid me some money to write a sign for him:
TAILOR AND CUTTER Suits made to Order Popular and Competitive Prices
He bought a sewing machine and some blue and white and brown chalks. But I never could imagine him competing with anyone; and I cannot remember him making a suit. He was a little bit like Popo, the carpenter next door, who never made a stick of furniture and was always planing and chiselling and making what I think he called mortises. Whenever I asked him, 'Mr Popo, what you making?' he would reply, 'Ha, boy! That's the question. I making the thing without a name.' Bogart was never even making anything like this.
Being a child, I never wondered how Bogart came by any money. I assumed that grown-ups had money as a matter of course. Popo had a wife who worked at a variety of jobs; and ended up by becoming the friend of many men. I could never think of Bogart as having mother or father; and he never brought a woman to his little room. This little room of his was called the servant-room but no servant to the people in the main house ever lived there. It was just an architectural convention.
It is still something of a miracle to me that Bogart managed to make friends. Yet he did make many friends; he was at one time quite the most popular man in the street. I used to see him squatting on the pavement with all the big men of the street. And while Hat or Edward or Eddoes was talking, Bogart would just look down and draw rings with his fingers on the pavement. He never laughed audibly. He never told a story. Yet whenever there was a fete or something like that, everybody would say, 'We must have Bogart. He smart like hell, that man.' In a way he gave them great solace and comfort, I suppose.
And so every morning, as I told you, Hat would shout, very loudly, 'What happening there, Bogart?'
And he would wait for the indeterminate grumble which was Bogart saying, 'What happening there, Hat?'
But one morning, when Hat shouted, there was no reply. Something which had appeared unalterable was missing.
Bogart had vanished; had left us without a word.
The men in the street were silent and sorrowful for two whole days. They assembled in Bogart's little room. Hat lifted up the deck of cards that lay on Bogart's table and dropped two or three cards at a time reflectively.
Hat said, 'You think he gone Venezuela?'
But no one knew. Bogart told them so little.
And the next morning Hat got up and lit a cigarette and went to his back verandah and was on the point of shouting, when he remembered. He milked the cows earlier than usual that morning, and the cows didn't like it.
A month passed; then another month. Bogart didn't return.
Hat and his friends began using Bogart's room as their club house. They played wappee and drank rum and smoked, and sometimes brought the odd stray woman to the room. Hat was presently involved with the police for gambling and sponsoring cock-fighting; and he had to spend a lot of money to bribe his way out of trouble.
It was as if Bogart had never come to Miguel Street. And after all Bogart had been living in the street only for four years or so. He had come one day with a single suitcase, looking for a room, and he had spoken to Hat who was squatting outside his gate, smoking a cigarette and reading the cricket scores in the evening paper. Even then he hadn't said much. All he said -- that was Hat's story -- was, 'You know any rooms?' and Hat had led him to the next yard where there was this furnished servant-room going for eight dollars a month. He had installed himself there immediately, brought out a pack of cards, and begun playing patience.
This impressed Hat.
For the rest he had always remained a man of mystery. He became Patience.
When Hat and everybody else had forgotten or nearly forgotten Bogart, he returned. He turned up one morning just about seven and found Eddoes and a woman on his bed. The woman jumped up and screamed. Eddoes jumped up, not so much afraid as embarrassed.
Bogart said, 'Move over. I tired and I want to sleep.'
He slept until five that afternoon, and when he woke up he found his room full of the old gang. Eddoes was being very loud and noisy to cover up his embarrassment. Hat had brought a bottle of rum.
Hat said, 'What happening there, Bogart?'
And he rejoiced when he found his cue taken up. 'What happening there, Hat?'
Hat opened the bottle of rum, and shouted to Boyee to go buy a bottle of soda water.
Bogart asked, 'How the cows, Hat?'
'They all right.'
'He all right too. Ain't you just hear me call him?'
'He all right too. But what happening, Bogart? You all right?'
Bogart nodded, and drank a long Madrassi shot of rum. Then another, and another; and they had presently finished the bottle.
'Don't worry,' Bogart said. 'I go buy another.'
They had never seen Bogart drink so much; they had never heard him talk so much; and they were alarmed. No one dared to ask Bogart where he had been.
Bogart said, 'You boys been keeping my room hot all the time?'
'It wasn't the same without you,' Hat replied.
But they were all worried. Bogart was hardly opening his lips when he spoke. His mouth was twisted a little, and his accent was getting slightly American.
'Sure, sure,' Bogart said, and he had got it right. He was just like an actor.
Hat wasn't sure that Bogart was drunk.
In appearance, you must know, Hat recalled Rex Harrison, and he had done his best to strengthen the resemblance. He combed his hair backwards, screwed up his eyes, and he spoke very nearly like Harrison.
'Damn it, Bogart,' Hat said, and he became very like Rex Harrison. 'You may as well tell us everything right away.'
Bogart showed his teeth and laughed in a twisted, cynical way.
'Sure I'll tell,' he said, and got up and stuck his thumbs inside his waistband. 'Sure, I'll tell everything.'
He lit a cigarette, leaned back in such a way that the smoke got into his eyes; and, squinting, he drawled out his story.
He had got a job on a ship and had gone to British Guiana. There he had deserted, and gone into the interior. He became a cowboy on the Rupununi, smuggled things (he didn't say what) into Brazil, and had gathered some girls from Brazil and taken them to Georgetown. He was running the best brothel in the town when the police treacherously took his bribes and arrested him.
'It was a high-class place,' he said, 'no bums. Judges and doctors and big shot civil servants.'
'What happen?' Eddoes asked. 'Jail?'
'How you so stupid?' Hat said. 'Jail, when the man here with we. But why you people so stupid? Why you don't let the man talk?'
But Bogart was offended, and refused to speak another word.
From then on the relationship between these men changed. Bogart became the Bogart of the films. Hat became Harrison. And the morning exchange became this:
Bogart now became the most feared man in the street. Even Big Foot was said to be afraid of him. Bogart drank and swore and gambled with the best. He shouted rude remarks at girls walking by themselves in the street. He bought a hat, and pulled down the brim over his eyes. He became a regular sight, standing against the high concrete fence of his yard, hands in his pockets, one foot jammed against the wall, and an eternal cigarette in his mouth.
Then he disappeared again. He was playing cards with the gang in his room, and he got up and said, 'I'm going to the latrine.'
They didn't see him for four months.
When he returned, he had grown a little fatter but he had become a little more aggressive. His accent was now pure American. To complete the imitation, he began being expansive towards children. He called out to them in the streets, and gave them money to buy gum and chocolate. He loved stroking their heads, and giving them good advice.
The third time he went away and came back he gave a great party in his room for all the children or kids, as he called them. He bought cases of Solo and Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola and about a bushel of cakes.
Then Sergeant Charles, the policeman who lived up Miguel Street at number forty-five, came and arrested Bogart.
'Don't act tough, Bogart,' Sergeant Charles said.
But Bogart failed to take the cue.
'What happening, man? I ain't do anything.'
Sergeant Charles told him.
There was a little stir in the papers. The charge was bigamy; but it was up to Hat to find out all the inside details that the newspapers never mention.
'You see,' Hat said on the pavement that evening, 'the man leave his first wife in Tunapuna and come to Port of Spain. They couldn't have children. He remain here feeling sad and small. He go away, find a girl in Caroni and he give she a baby. In Caroni they don't make joke about that sort of thing and Bogart had to get married to the girl.'
'But why he leave she?' Eddoes asked.
'To be a man, among we men.'
THE THING WITHOUT A NAME
The only thing that Popo, who called himself a carpenter, ever built was the little galvanised-iron workshop under the mango tree at the back of his yard. And even that he didn't quite finish. He couldn't be bothered to nail on the sheets of galvanised iron for the roof, and kept them weighted down with huge stones. Whenever there was a high wind the roof made a frightening banging noise and seemed ready to fly away.
And yet Popo was never idle. He was always busy hammering and sawing and planing. I liked watching him work. I liked the smell of the woods -- cyp and cedar and crapaud. I liked the colour of the shavings, and I liked the way the sawdust powdered Popo's kinky hair.
'What you making, Mr Popo?' I asked.
Popo would always say, 'Ha, boy! That's the question. I making the thing without a name.'
I liked Popo for that. I thought he was a poetic man.
One day I said to Popo, 'Give me something to make.'
'What you want to make?' he said.
It was hard to think of something I really wanted.
'You see,' Popo said. 'You thinking about the thing without a name.'
Eventually I decided on an egg-stand.
'Who you making it for?' Popo asked.
He laughed. 'Think she going use it?'
My mother was pleased with the egg-stand, and used it for about a week. Then she seemed to forget all about it, and began putting the eggs in bowls or plates, just as she did before.
And Popo laughed when I told him. He said, 'Boy, thc only thing to make is the thing without a name.'
After I painted the tailoring sign for Bogart, Popo made me do one for him as well.
He took the little red stump of a pencil he had stuck over his ear and puzzled over the words. At first he wanted to announce himself as an architect; but I managed to dissuade him. He wasn't sure about the spelling. The finished sign said:
BUILDER AND CONTRACTOR Carpenter And Cabinet-Maker
And I signed my name, as sign-writer, in the bottom right-hand corner.
Popo liked standing up in front of the sign. But he had a little panic when people who didn't know about him came to inquire.
'The carpenter fellow?' Popo would say. 'He don't live here again.'
I thought Popo was a much nicer man than Bogart. Bogart said little to me, but Popo was always ready to talk. He talked about serious things, like life and death and work, and I felt he really liked talking to me.
Yet Popo was not a popular man in the street. They didn't think he was mad or stupid. Hat used to say, 'Popo too conceited, you hear.'
It was an unreasonable thing to say. Popo had the habit of taking a glass of rum to the pavement every morning. He never sipped the rum. But whenever he saw someone he knew he dipped his middle finger in the rum, licked it, and then waved to the man.
'We could buy rum too,' Hat used to say. 'But we don't show off like Popo.'
I myself never thought about it in that way, and one day I asked Popo about it.
Popo said, 'Boy, in the morning, when the sun shining and it still cool, and you just get up, it make you feel good to know that you could go out and stand up in the sun and have some rum.'
Popo never made any money. His wife used to go out and work, and this was easy, because they had no children. Popo said, 'Women and them like work. Man not make for work.'
Hat said, 'Popo is a man-woman. Not a proper man.'
Popo's wife had a job as a cook in a big house near my school. She used to wait for me in the afternoons and take me into the big kitchen and give me a lot of nice things to eat. The only thing I didn't like was the way she sat and watched me while I ate. It was as though I was eating for her. She asked me to call her Auntie.
She introduced me to the gardener of the big house. He was a good-looking brown man, and he loved his flowers. I liked the gardens he looked after. The flower-beds were always black and wet; and the grass green and damp and always cut. Sometimes he let me water the flower-beds. And he used to gather the cut grass into little bags which he gave me to take home to my mother. Grass was good for the hens.
One day I missed Popo's wife. She wasn't waiting for me.
Next morning I didn't see Popo dipping his finger in the glass of rum on the pavement.
And that evening I didn't see Popo's wife.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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