Fireflies is, perhaps, underrated. It lies in the shadow of A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) that masterpiece by Shiva Naipaul’s older brother—and certainly lacks the driving force, unrelenting central focus, and architectural coherence of its predecessor. Yet it is a massive success in its own right. It won the Jock Campbell Award, the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize, and the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize of the Royal Society of Literature.
Like his brother, Shiva Naipaul was Hindu by instinct, if not by doctrine. His story conveys a strong sense of detachment and resignation, for in it the heroine, unable to alter the grim course of life, gives up the struggle in the end.
In a sense, Naipaul could be accused of exercising the fashionable pessimism of existentialism, but there is a sweet flavor amid the bitterness and sourness of his story. His gritty satire saves the writing from wearying pessimism, and his perceptive renderings of human nature offer a cool irony. Yet it is not a cold, heartless book, for the satirist’s penetrating and scalding wit is balanced by sympathy for suffering. Like the fireflies of the title, the heroine’s struggle sheds light before being extinguished. Its light is an illumination of human nature. Naipaul’s comedy thus distances readers from facile pity without alienating them from the vulnerabilities that make us helplessly human.