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Sep 22, 2010

The White Tiger: Aravind Adiga

I'm trying not to be influenced by the blurbs (seven pages of them?) festooning my Free Press trade paperback first edition copy, complete with "Reading Group Guide," of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, winner of the 2008 Booker Prize. The book, a first novel by an Indian-born writer who has lived in Australia, Britain and the US, was predictably hyped to the stars. (I still take the Booker seriously and I always check out the books. Sad to say I pay no attention to the Nobel. The Booker is also politicized, not to mention parochial, but neither of those flaws necessarily means the books aren't good.) The comparison to Russian literature is inevitable, the blurbs mention Dostoevsky, Gogol and Gorky but Gary Shteyngart's excellent Absurdistan, the subject of an earlier post, came to my mind. Both books illuminate the extravagant excesses of globalization in Asia with the kind of black comedy that comes from righteous rage. Then I noticed that Shteyngart wrote one of the blurbs on the back cover - so did I think of Shteyngart on my own?
In an interview published at the end of the book Adiga mentions the excoriating, sulphorous African-American novels of the mid-20th century: Ellison, Baldwin and Wright. Going with that I would mention contemporary African fiction as one of the most active venues of the alienated man. Another post here discusses the Nigerian El Nukoya's Nine Lives, a book with close similarities to this one.

Anyway, news flash, the book is really good. It is indeed "compulsively readable." It's angry and funny - "satire" is the technical term. It's a fast read and part of its spell is the way Adiga puts everything out on the surface as we fast-forward along through the life story of Balram Halwai, the twisted and unreliable narrator. He has asserted his humanity through transgression, which is a fine old existential theme in itself, but the real game (as in the 19th century Russian novel) is to persuade the reader that the societal pressures (notably the economic and political ones) on the anti-protagonist make his transgressions understandable, and to at least entertain the idea that they may be, as the antihero himself believes, justifiable.

In this case the target is the surreal disparity of wealth in turn-of-the-century India. The workers building luxurious condominiums live in fetid slums next door. Justice is for sale and the rich not only flout the law but openly pawn the lives of their servants, who fear not only for themselves but their families; to be a servant even to the well-meaning rich is to be held hostage mafia-style. To top the situation off, this clearly untenable circumstance is directly tied to the identification of the wealthy professional class with the West, very conspicuously the English-speaking West. Demagogic populists, meanwhile, are winning elections. "Someday the brown-skinned and yellow-skinned people will be in charge," fulminates the murderously angry narrator, "and then heaven help the rest of you." The message is made more pointed by the writer's lucid and sardonic understanding that the beast within is the same as the beast without.

But it's also really funny. If it wasn't it wouldn't work. It's a book that may even be around for the long term, so masterful is the blending of real provocation with fine black humor.

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