Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Book 37: The Death of Vishnu

The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri

I've noticed that whenever I start to fall behind on reviews, it tends to be because there will be that one book that I don't know how to react to or what to say about it. The Death of Vishnu is one of those for me. I picked it up based on the recommendation of my friend Jak, and I enjoyed reading it but I've noticed I always have a hard time articulating my thoughts when I read literature about other cultures (I enjoy reading post-colonial lit, but as I said, sometimes it can be hard for me to critique).

A lot of this probably has to do with the fact that I'm really not that familiar with the culture, and while I read these novels to learn about the culture, it isn't the same as growing up in it. So a lot of it is due to familiarity or lack thereof. For example, while reading about the bickering housewives in this novel, it reminded me of Thirty Umrigar's Bombay Times (I really enjoy this author). However, I'm not sure if I were reading an American or English novel with bickering housewives, I would immediately think, "hey, that reminds me of all these other American authors." When I read Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie, I noticed the back cover and Amazon displayed several quotes comparing her to Chinua Achebe and I couldn't help but wonder if this comparison was being drawn simply because they were both from Nigeria. I've also seen comments online about how it is hard to get books translated or published in English about other cultures, along the lines of "oh, you wrote a novel about a disillusioned Indian? We already have one of those" even if there might be a hundred written and published about a disillusioned American (I'm paraphrasing and staying rather general here since I don't remember where I read this).

Anyway, since there are of course fewer novels available to English-speaking readers about India than there are about America or England, it might be harder not to start comparing them subconsciously or drawing connections. Also, instead of reading the novel, and drawing comparisons to real-life people one knows, it is easier to compare them to other characters. If that makes any sense at all.

Anyway, I've been avoiding this review for about two weeks for above stated reasons, so some things are already becoming a little fuzzy. The novel is about the dynamics of an apartment complex in Bombay. One of the characters, Vishnu, the "errand man" who lives on the stairs is dying, and the novel deals with the few days during which he lay dying. For the most part, his dying is seen as an annoyance and an embarrassment even, since now company has to pass a dying man on the way to visit. While Vishnu adds some more reasons for arguments into the mix, for the most part, life goes on as normal. On one floor, two families have apartments and they share a kitchen. This has led to a type of warfare between the two housewives. One of the families has an eighteen year old daughter who is seeing the Muslim boy from upstairs against her parents' wishes. The last resident is a widower, whose wife died several years ago after only a short but loving marriage (I liked him the most), and then of course there are various servants and workers that make appearances throughout the novel.

The Muslim husband has always been more of an intellectual but in the last few months he has been acting very odd, worrying his wife. It turns out he is on a quest to find religion and God, and he is the one that has the idea that the dying Vishnu is actually the God Vishnu. Vishnu hears this, and starts believing it as well as he lies on the stair threshold, reflecting upon his life.

In addition to class divisions, religion continues to play a large role, and the only time the two bickering housewives bond is when they bitch about the Muslim housewife upstairs. The teenagers in the novel are rather ridiculous and have completely unrealistic ideas of life. As I said, I enjoyed the widower's reflections on his life as well as Vishnu's memories the most. I also felt very sympathetic towards the Muslim wife who loves her husband but probably ended up with someone she was rather incompatible with. In comparison, the other two housewives seemed much less developed as characters.

The ending is rather dark. It was hard to really relate to any of the characters too much because while they definitely have things that are relatable they also act oddly on occasion - it was easier to maintain a certain amount of distance from everyone. I think Umrigar's characters in Bombay Times, which is also about an apartment building, are easier to relate to even with all their flaws. And there I go comparing again.


denesteak said...

Wait (just to clarify)... so Vishnu lives ON the stairs? And he is dying? That sounds terrible...

I am reading one of those hard-to-relate/compare books right now. It's about Afghan family life (basically) and I keep getting frustrated at myself for thinking badly of their actions or cultures (like just mistreating women in general.)

By the way, I was just thinking of The Twentieth Wife yesterday, and this book kinda reminded me of it (but only coz it's also Indian. hah) You ever read that?

Jen K said...

Yes, the way the author explained it in the afterword was that space can be very limited in India so even living on the threshold in the staircase is desirable - there was actually a bit of dealing going on for who was going to "own" the spot after Vishnu.
I read The Twentieth Wife (I'm a sucker for historical fiction), and I liked it. I also read the sequel which was a nice wrap-up but not as good. I liked the whole fairy tale ending aspect of the first one (she deserved it) - the second didn't have that.
Can't wait to read your review for the one about Afghanistan (why is it that the first thing that pops into my head when hearing women and Afghanistan is A Thousand Splendid Suns?)

denesteak said...

ooooh, I can't touch another Khalid Hosseini after reading The Kite Runner (I thought it was both affecting/upsetting and also entirely manipulative) so I never got to A Thousand Splendid Suns. I am, however, a sucker for books about Afghanistan (before Cannonball read started, I was only reading book about the iraq and afghanistan war - Lite reading!) so I might check that out since you threw in the women aspect of it.

Yea, I remember liking the Twentieth wife, but don't remember much about it. I pretty sure I read the sequel too... you have a fantastic memory for books, seeing as how you read so much!