The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008) Free Press (2008) 320 pp
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 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) concept 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 inclusion of The White Tiger 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.
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.”
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, again , 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 stylistic 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 : ) ).