Wednesday, December 24, 2014

What I'm Reading: A House for Mr. Biswas

Sometimes I read a book that has a cool idea, but I wish the writing were sharper and better. Other times I read a book with marvelous writing, but the story the author wanted to tell is just not a story I want to read.

So it goes with A House For Mr. Biswas. Mohun I supposed to like him? Feel sorry for him? Feel contempt? Are the problems in his life there because he has no ability to defend or stick up for himself? Or are they there because of his family of in-laws?

Mr. Biswas begins life as an ill-fortuned baby and it all goes downhill from there. You find it very hard to root for him, though. I'm reminded of those romantic comedy plots where there is only drama because the characters won't sit down and talk to each other, thus letting the misunderstandng boil over into comedy. ("Comedy.") I hate those plotlines and I can never stand to watch movies or read books based on those sorts of misunderstandings because they are just so easily avoided in real life. I have the same frustration with M. Biswas. His marriage and all the resulting problems could have been avoided if he had just said the damn words, "No, I don't want to marry your daughter."

He gets harder to like as the book goes on, as everything that is wrong in his life he traces back being forced to relate to his wife (whom he never seems to like, ever) and his in-laws (who afford him zero respect). Maybe Mr. Biswas is intended to be a buffoon, someone we don't like but someone we laugh at. If that is the case, he is still too well-meaning to really be a satisfying laughing-stock. His store closes because he extends too much credit to customers; he makes sure to visit his daughter to lives at the in-laws house in the next town over and to check that she's not getting beatings or awful food. It doesn't feel good to laugh at someone like that; Biswas is no Ignatious J. O'Reilly.

There is just something so repulsive about the book that reading it has become a chore (which it usually isn't for me). It started off well but it has become tedious. It's the only English-language book I have on my person for our upcoming Christmas trip to the farm, though, so I expect I'll power through whether I want to or not. At least being at the farm I'm likely to finish it faster than I would otherwise.


  1. What a strange book premise hahah. Out of curiosity I looked it up on Wiki just now, too. It just seemed like he got himself into one crappy situation after another. I feel like with those type of stories you're supposed to either feel bad and root for the person, or the person is so terrible that you enjoy the bad things happening to him, and this Biswas guy sounds like neither of those things! Hmm.

    1. It doesn't get much better, either. =/ I like the books I'm reading to have a point, or really well-crafted and relatable characters, or truly brilliant writing. Biswas had none of these. There's little in the way of character transformation or narrative tension; the characters are sketched with varying levels of detail but none feel like real or relatable people; and the writing style is dull and utilitarian, serving only to dish up this tedious and unlikeable people in easily-read detail.

      At one point I think I had even taken this book off my to-read list to make room for something else, but I'll take whatever English language classics I can find right before a big holiday. Oh well. I finished it on Boxing Day and tomorrow I get to take it back and exchange it for something (hopefully!) better!

      I think there are probably more deserving writers and books out there. I think Biswas should be considered for removal, if TIME ever cares to update its Top Novels of the 20th Century list.