Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: The White Tiger

The White Tiger The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve had this one in the pile for at least five years. It sat on my shelf, something I felt I ought to read but didn’t quite feel like tackling. I liked the idea of a postcolonial take on India’s economy and class/caste system, but I wasn’t in the mood for something serious and heavy – I had enough of that in the pile of American stuff to read.

Anyway, I couldn’t quite kick it out either. (You don’t do that with Booker Prize winners which seem to me, this one included, an almost can’t-miss bunch. Those judges routinely pick books I find I love.) So it sat there for a serious opportunity.

I wish I had known sooner, then, how funny this book is. Balram is, in a word, a rogue – a classic rogue. He is essentially conscienceless, and the overall conceit of the novel is not a confession of his crimes but a boast, one that he offers fawningly toward a Chinese official whom he has never met and who will of course have no interest in the story.

The novel consists of his “rise” as if he were an Indian Duddy Kravitz or Augie March, but he comes from a world more corrupt than Richler’s Montreal or Bellow’s Chicago. (And you know a place is corrupt if it puts Chicago corruption to shame.) Adiga’s India holds life cheap; it’s graft is an industry with clear rules and procedures. It’s modern economy is a façade, new wealth built on the prejudices and exploitation of the society it purportedly replaced.

Balram fancies himself an entrepreneur, and he certainly is that by the end. But he is an entrepreneur in a modest Al Capone way even in his apprentice days. No betrayal is too much and no hypocrisy too blatant for him to recognize it in himself. He plays one sort of character in one setting and another when the context changes, boasting of all it in a memorable, sometimes charming, sometimes impossibly stupid voice.

And the voice is always accomplished. Imagine a character who dares at least twice to list what he considers the four greatest poets in the world only to acknowledge not knowing the name of the fourth. Or imagine one who, fearless when it comes to blackmailing others, cowers at the sight of a gecko or other lizard. Or one who makes it clear he knows the price of every life around him but has no conception those lives might have any value in other currency.

But this seems like more than simply a memorable character study. It’s also a send-up of the contemporary Indian character, a critique of a culture that presents itself as “improved” but that carries forward the inequality for which it was notorious in earlier generations.

It is, in other words, literature that does the highest work of literature: mocking the presumptions that serve as the grease for the gears of self-righteous culture. This is just the sort of thing I’d be advocating for a Booker if the Booker people didn’t keep getting it so right themselves.

And, let me tell you, it is really funny. There is certainly something heavy here, but Balram’s strange amalgam of servility, pride and malapropism makes it seem light and amusing throughout. Don’t wait five years to read this yourself.

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