Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger

Before you read the book:

I love this time of year!  While there are good books to read all year round, I can’t think of another time of year when more people are focused on the same batch of good (well, often good) books.  The collective energy is invigorating!  Plus, I always find books I never would have looked at otherwise.  Here is a prime example: I would never have read Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008) if it weren’t for the 2008 Man Booker longlist (we’ll see if it makes the shortlist on September 9).  To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether to tackle this book before it proved itself a bit more by making the shortlist – the cover looks a bit too much like the cover of those loud and, to me, unappealing books that have been all over the bookstores lately, the ones that think a clever (but often vacuous) conceit is enough to substantiate an entire novel.  From the cover and the book description on my copy, I expected a self-agrandizing, pretentious first novel that really only reiterated what others have already said and said better (and that even others have already tried to imitate and have imitated poorly), confusing clever and often base logorrhea with real substance. 

I admit it: I looked for reasons to be bothered by The White Tiger‘s inclusion on the 2008 Man Booker longlist: 

(1) I went in expecting the first-person narrative/comic style to be too reminiscent of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children;

(2) I thought it was just another Booker book about the caste system in India;

(3) I assumed it might be all comedy and no substance, in other words, just a witty voice spewing a lot of nothingness;

(4) well, I didn’t get to number four – the book didn’t really let me find anything else and quickly erased my three previous gripes.  

Within just a few pages I felt lucky to have gotten my hands on The White Tiger.  Sure, sometimes the first-person, comical narrator brings back memories of Saleem Sinai, but to say The White Tiger isn’t unique and intriguing in its own right would be unfair and downright wrong: I don’t think Adiga owes a dime to Rushdie.  And the Indian caste system?  It’s there too, but here the caste system isn’t an overt subject – it’s part of the setting, and, therefore, Adiga’s dealings with it are much more subversive.  The comedy is also all over the place, but it is original and filled with biting substance: “Like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra, the voters discuss the elections in Laxmangarh.”  And it’s hardly all comic: throughout the book are passages of melancholy and pain, sometimes lacing the comedy, sometimes overwhelming it, always smoothly integrated.  Here is an example of the change in tone from the first few pages when the narrator tells about his mother’s death and funeral:

My mother’s body had been wrapped from head to toe in a saffron silk cloth, which was covered in rose petals and jasmine garlands.  I don’t think she had ever had such a fine thing to wear in her life.  (Her death was so grand that I knew, all at once, that her life must have been miserable.  My family was guilty about something.)

Okay, so now you know that my preconceptions of the book were disposed of quickly, but what is the book about?  The book is composed of the narrator’s letters to “His Excellency Wen Jiabao” who hails from Beijing, “Capital of the Freedom-loving Nation of China.”  Jiabao is planning to visit Bangalore the next week, so our narrator takes it upon himself to spend the next seven nights writing to him about “the truth about Bangalore” by telling Jiabao about his own emergence.  This self-reflecting story the narrator tells is a mesmerizing look at India’s tiger economy.

The narrator considers himself a great Indian entrepreneur (“My country is the kind where it pays to play it both ways: the Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time”).  He’s raised himself from the depths of the caste system and landed . . . well, we don’t know where he’s landed as the book begins.  What we do find out in the first couple of pages, however, is that he has murdered his employer (whom he still respects and defends) and has been eluding the police in “the Light.”  From underneath an ominous chandelier, he writes these letters about his past on a new silver Macintosh, showing Jiaboa what he knows about India.

Please understand, Your Excellency, that India is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness.  The ocean brings light to my country.  Every place on the map of India near the ocean is well off.  But the river brings darkness to India – the black river.

Each episode the narrator lays out in a letter is compelling and interesting and entertaining.  The cast of characters is small and idiosyncratic and well developed.  I don’t want to say much more than that because a lot of the fun is in discovering how the story moves on from the first few pages to the ending.     

However, in a note about style: another reason I fell quickly behind this book is its simple and subtle narrative technique of having so much going on inside the character’s head that does not match what is going on outside.  For example, this character speaks with such confidence in his letters to Jiabao about all matters.  But when we stop to consider what he does, driving cars silently all day, fully living up to his employers’ expectations that he be a simpleton:

A sharp blow landed on my head.

I looked up and saw the Stork, with his palm still raised over my skull, glaring at me.

“Know what that was for?”

“Yes, sir,” I said – with a big smile on my face.

“Good.”

A minute later he hit me on the head again.

“Tell him what it was for, Father.  I don’t think he knows.  Fellow, you’re pressing too hard.  You’re too excited.  Father is getting annoyed.  Slow down.”

“Yes, sir.”

The narrator is frequently found smiling dumbly, accepting his role and his master’s beneficence.  But, obviously, there is a lot is going on below the surface.  This device reminded me somewhat of the setup of The Remains of the Day: It was done well here too, but here too, I don’t think Adiga owes anything to Ishiguro.

Don’t mistake this for charm, though.  This is a pretty brutal book, and not all of it is between the lines.

Other stylistict strengths, the book has nice balance and pacing.  As I mentioned earlier, the comedy doesn’t overwhelm and neither does the melancholy.  It is incredibly well balanced and textured.  Also, the story itself moves smoothly.  Though it is obvious the narrator is holding back in order to keep us reading, it never feels like an authorial ploy (which it often did even in Midnight’s Children): what the narrator is saying at the moment is interesting and important and in place.  We know we’ll get to the other stuff in due time and are willing to wait while the foundation is being set up.  In fact, I was enjoying the setup so much, I wasn’t sure I wanted to get to the end.

So for me The White Tiger definitely deserves its spot on the longlist and, comparing it to prior shortlists, merits a spot on the shortlist too.  I feel the Booker race is off to a great start this year.  I have thoroughly enjoyed The White Tiger and Netherland (the only other one I’ve read so far : ) ). 

After you read the book:

Since I assume many people will be reading this book over the next few months, I don’t want to tempt anyone to spoil it for him- or herself by discussing the ending here in the main post.  However, I would very much like to engage in such a discussion in the comments.  Please just mark the top of your comment “spoiler.”

24 thoughts on “Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger

  1. workingwords100 says:

    Using the letters as a device to tell the story in interesting and modern at the same time, since he doesn’t do it longhand.

    Is the narrator in the high-tech computer industry?

  2. In a way this narrative bridges the old with the new. I hadn’t thought of that it’s another way the novel sets up the unsteady emergence of (and really unbalanced transition to) India in its tiger economy.

    I’ll let you figure out the narrator’s industry when you read it!

  3. redheadrambles says:

    Trevor – I have just started this book over the weekend, so I am saving your review up until I have finished. I love it when a book surprises your expectations. I should have my review posted by next weekend at the latest.
    B.T.W I have also succumbed and brought a copy of Child 44, I hope it will not disappoint.

  4. Stewart says:

    Well, glancing over the review, it’s encouraging as I’ve started my Bookerthon with this title, and I’m fifty pages in. Not overly smitten with it yet, although humour on the page tends to pass me by.

  5. Stewart, I’m sure some of the reason I liked it as much as I did was because I had extremely low expectations. The marketing for the book was definitely not directed at me. When the book turned out to supercede my expectations by so much, I’m afraid I was smitten – perhaps blindly! Anxious to see your thoughts.

    Yours, too, readhead!

  6. Michael says:

    I had the same reaction you did, Trevor, when I first saw the cover in the bookstore: it screamed pre-packaged quirk to me. I’m glad to hear it apparently has more substance than that.

  7. Stewart says:

    Finished it now, and have to agree: it subverts low expectations. I’m going to let it stew for an hour in my head before I get to writing about it. But a good start to the Bookerthon.

  8. Michael, I hope that you still find it meets expectations, even though now I’ve created higher ones!

    Stewart- Great! I’ll be coming over to your blog later today then. By the way, I’m now getting on with Child 44, which is also surprising me.

  9. Stewart says:

    I’ve another book – non-Booker – going up today, with the Adiga following after. Sorry! I’ve a funny feeling I’m going to be stuck in the 700+ pages of the Philip Hensher and Steve Toltz books for some time that I’ve got some other reviews of world lit in reserve to ensure regular updates.

    Incidentally, interesting you are reading Child 44, as that’s the one I’ve chosen to read next.

  10. I like your other reviews too, Stewart, so I’ll gladly read them while I wait to read your review of The White Tiger.

    I’m not sure I’ll be joining you on Hensher and Toltz. The Hensher isn’t available here until next February (8 of the 13 titles are published in the U.S.). And I’m just not sure I’m interested in Toltz’s after John Self’s review. If they make the shortlist, I’ll change my mind about the Toltz and do my best to get a hold of Hensher.

  11. Stewart says:

    In the end I’ve decided to put the Adiga up and then the other one up on Tuesday. More are probably interested in the The White Tiger.

  12. Interesting. This was actually already on my to be read pile, based on reviews here in Britain. Your review encourages me that it belongs there. That said, I prefer books in paperback so I doubt I’ll get to this for another six months or so.

    I was actually quite surprised to see the Hensher listed, I don’t recall a single positive review (some qualified positives, but nothing spectacular) and I do rather wonder if its inclusion owes more to the author’s status in the British literary world than to the novel’s merits. Not having read it though, I may be being deeply unfair in that suspicion.

  13. I’m not sure I’m going to crack the Hensher unless it gets shortlisted. It’s pretty long, and I also have noticed the lack of strong positive reviews. Maybe if I get through the other titles I’ll give it a shot just to be complete. We’ll see!

  14. John Self says:

    I’m approaching halfway through The White Tiger, Trevor, and I must admit I’m feeling a little underwhelmed. I wonder if this is partly a function of high expectations – from your and Stewart’s positive responses to it – as your pleasure was partly a function of your low expectations? Mainly I’m finding that the many characters have very little to distinguish them. Take away the “said Ram” or “said the Mongoose” and I wouldn’t have anything to distinguish who was speaking, either in style or content. But we shall see if my view changes with progress.

  15. Unfortunately, this positive review might have tainted other readers too – like redhead rambles, who recently posted a review and didn’t find much to like here either.

    I am anxious to see if your take on the book changes, John. Perhaps you are approaching it with a more balanced perspective than I did, since I thought it looked awful. I am positive that some of my pleasure with the book was due to the fact that it wasn’t as bad as I thougt it was going to be, though I did think it was better than many. I’m trying to remember if the last half was much different in terms of development than the first half. You’ll have to remind me!

    At least the opposite phenomenon is also true: I have your negative review to thank for helping me set up low expectations for Netherland, which is still my favorite longlisted title this year ;) .

  16. Apparently this book won by the narrowest of margins over Barry’s The Secret Scripture. See this.

  17. sharat says:

    the book THE WHITE TIGER written by Aravind Adiga is very good.The contents are also intresting and reading is going on continiously without any hurdles.

  18. I’m glad you’re enjoying it, sharat. I’d love to hear your final thoughts on the book.

  19. dreamy says:

    hi trevor, i just finished reading this and i liked it. i don’t read from a literary standpoint but a personal one. i grew up in a culture where we had servants (although we disguisingly called them helpers). i used to often think about how our helpers thought and felt about being second-class citizens. i often wished i could do something about it but it was just the way things were.

    while reading this book there was a lot of clicking going on in my head. ha ha.

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