Nabokov, in one of his many literary injunctions – this one appearing in the foreword to his Lectures on Literature – says, “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” He’s referring to the classics. But what makes a book, a regular book without classic status, so eminently rereadable? It would have to be a book whose qualities endure, or a book whose qualities are invulnerable to a reader’s change in age and temperament, to put it boringly. Maybe modesty of scope is another possible explanation. Who rereads books with outsized ambition? One summer’s enough to tackle War and Peace. But two?
Miguel Street is a collection of linked stories, a genre more popular today, probably, than in 1959 when the book was first published. It revolves around the many colourful characters inhabiting the book’s eponymous narrow street in Port of Spain during the years spanning the Second World War. The stories are told from the perspective of a precocious and fatherless young boy. His adult self intrudes subtly and always effectively, so as to provide the occasional keen insight that the young boy could not have made himself.
This is how the narrator describes his street: “A stranger could drive through Miguel Street and just say ‘Slum!’ because he could see no more. But we, who lived there, saw our street as a world, where everybody was quite different from everybody else. Man-man was mad; George was stupid; Big Foot was a bully; Hat was an adventurer; Popo was a philosopher; and Morgan was our comedian.”
Miguel Street imagines a particular place (Port of Spain) during a particular time (the Second World War). The details give the book a distinct, even exotic, locality. The dialogue is written in a patois and characters invoke verses of popular calypsos when they feel the need to affirm certain fundamental truths. Here, the character Hat calls on a popular calypso after his brother’s wife runs off with an American: “I was living with my decent and contented wife/Until the soldiers came and broke up my life.”
Despite these particularities, the themes in the book are universal. Each story focuses on one of the neighbourhood characters. Their foibles are not skewered but treated with the utmost sensitivity and more than a little trace of irony too. The story titled “B. Wordsworth,” about a local poet the narrator befriends for a few weeks, is one of the more devastatingly sad stories I’ve ever read. Naipaul’s language is so pared down as to resemble poetry; the stories themselves are as tidily and tightly structured as poems.
Hat is the one character who appears in nearly every story, and he remains something of a mystery until the penultimate story in the collection. He is a kind of father figure to the narrator, and a voice of reason on the street too. His judgments of other characters and their predicaments are always astute and incisive, a quality the narrator seems to admire in him. When the narrator’s feelings for Hat change, it represents an irreversible change in the narrator himself.
In the final story, the narrator tells us how he leaves Miguel Street, the setting of his childhood. In that story, the collection not only wraps up but addresses its most resonant theme head-on: the end of childhood, and with it, innocence.