Sunday, 19 October 2008

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Balram Halwai, the eponymous "White Tiger", narrates this furious, blackly humourous, epistolary novel. Over seven nights, sitting beneath the chandelier in his Bangalore office, Balram dictates his life story in a series of letters addressed to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. He wants to tell Wen Jiabao the "truth" about modern India, in advance of the premier's visit to the country. His journey from servant, living in the Darkness inhabited by India's majority underclass, to fully-paid up entrepreneur, part of the rich elite living in the Light, reveals the dark underbelly of the economic miracle of India today.

Born to a rickshaw puller in an impoverished rural village, where the water buffalo is the only member of the family to receive an adequate diet, Balram decides at a young age that he wants to escape his fate. He doesn't want to remain as poor as his father, scratching out a living in a village brutally controlled by the local landlords. His early childhood is marked by neglect - no one even bothers to name him until his first day at school, when the teacher bestows the name Balram - but he's an alert and bright child. He learns to read, a skill that instantly elevates him above most of his peers. When his schooling prematurely ends, because his family are too poor to afford his classes, he continues his education by observing and eavesdropping on the customers of the tea shop where he's put to work. Since he decided at a young age that good deeds are rewarded only with more suffering, he embarks on his career in the tea shop with "near total dishonesty, lack of dedication, and insincerity" and therefore finds it "a profoundly enriching experience".

It's in the tea shop, after hearing a conversation between two customers, that he decides to become a driver. He wangles lessons from a local taxi driver and manages to secure a job as second driver in the city residence of a landlord from his local village (the risk of kidnap means most landlords prefer the security of the city over the dangers of their ancestral villages). Through yet more opportunism, he rises to first driver and is then taken to New Delhi, to drive for the American-educated son of the landlord. The master/servant relationship between Ashok, with his foreign ideas and foreign wife, and Balram is at the heart of the novel, reaching a bloody climax that provides the means of Balram's escape from his fate.

Adiga's novel is fiercely critical of a country where the only way to succeed is through the corruption that fuels the entire system. Families trade their sons for dowries, and expect every penny earned in the city to be sent back to the village. Businessmen flourish by providing constant bribes to politicians. Doctors are too busy treating rich patients to actually treat poor people, despite drawing salaries from the state to do so. Policemen "solve" crimes based on who pays the highest price. Politicians buy votes, making a mockery of the democracy India is so famous for. No part of society is free from the lash of Balram's tongue as he reveals the decay. Even his fellow servants are castigated for the way they keep each other down through petty rivalries and hierarchies. Having climbed out of the Darkness and into the Light, Balram tries to be fair to his workers, but he too is wired into the system. As a driver, he ferried his master to drop off bags of money to politicians. As a boss, he pays his way out of any trouble his drivers get into.

The relationship between the servant class and the rich masters is what makes this novel so interesting for me. Ashok is clearly uncomfortable with having to command a servant, and his wife is disgusted by it, wanting to return to New York as soon as possible. Yet it gradually becomes clear that he prefers India, prefers a society where the rich are pampered and spoiled by a whole raft of servants - drivers, masseurs, cleaners, cooks, gardeners - in a way impossible in America or England. Adiga brings this alive with small details, such as Balram scrabbling around the floor of the car for a one-rupee coin Ashok's brother claims to have lost, finally taking a coin from his own pocket to satisfy the master. Underlying Adiga's descriptions of the boom in outsourcing - Bangalore's gleaming call-centres - is the idea that India is making itself the servant of European and American companies. The call-centre workers meet their clients' every need in the same way Balram attempts to meet Ashok's every need.

I have some minor complaints about the epistolary structure - in spite of who the letters are addressed too, it reads too much like a standard first person narration and the epistolary structure feels artificial and unnecessary at times - but overall I liked this novel and I think it's a worthy winner of the Man Booker 2008. Adiga is definitely an author I'll be watching out for from here on in. If anyone would like to read a short story by him, check out this link to yesterday's Guardian Review.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

And the winner is...

I love brand new fiction. Each week I devour the book review pages in the newspapers and magazines I buy and daydream about what books I could read. I get excited when a blogger turns me onto a new author or book that sounds like something I'd love. Yet, in spite of this, I rarely read books in the year they're first published. This could be because I let my library membership slip years ago and don't generally like forking out for a hardback when I know the paperback will be around in a year or so. Or it could be that I tend to think "new fiction" means anything published in the last few years...anyway, back in September, I realised that the only piece of 2008 fiction I'd read was Preeta Samarasan's excellent Evening is the Whole Day. So when my birthday rolled around in I thought I'd treat myself to the entire Booker shortlist and try to read them all before the winner was announced. Well, tonight's the night the winner is announced and (drumroll please!) I've managed to read them (almost!) all of them (currently reading Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, with only Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole left to go). Best laid plans and my defence, I'm not a terribly fast reader and the shortlisted books tend to be on the long side (Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency is a stonking 738 pages long and the others range from about 300 pages to about 500 pages).

My reading's been influenced by the Booker shortlist for years - reading over the shortlists and winners from the last 40 years on Wikipedia (see here), quite a few of the books I've enjoyed most or that have stayed with my longest were either shortlisted or won. So while no list could define the best of what's on offer (how could one list that excludes US novels define something so subjective?), I was expecting it to be a good guide to cream of contemporary fiction in the UK. Now, after reading most of them, I'll be interested to see what finally wins. I didn't generally see the "extraordinary example[s] of imagination and narrative" the judges praised (see here for more from the judges). I'd be more interested to know what didn't make the shortlist (or even the longlist) in order to get a better sense of whether these really are the best of the 112 or so novels submitted for consideration. Perhaps that'll be the next step - we've got the longlist so perhaps it's a matter of time before we get a list of every book submitted...

Regardless, I've enjoyed my experiences. I loved Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture and it's the one I'd like to see win. I also enjoyed Philip Hensher's marvellous The Northern Clemency (which I actually expected to hate!) and would be almost as happy to see that win. Amitav Ghosh's The Sea of Poppies is a great read, though it wears its learning heavily (the details of the ship or the opium making process or life in that part of the 19th century in general were laid on thick and I kept thinking "yes, yes I can see you've done your research but please get your research out of the way of my enjoyment of your novel."). As it opens a trilogy, it didn't feel like a complete enough novel to me to warrant inclusion on the list (although Pat Barker's The Ghost Road won so being the start of a trilogy is no bar to winning). I'm afraid I intensely disliked Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs, finding the characters cliched and hard to care about. Reading it was like wading through treacle, so even though it's the shortest novel on the list it's the one I laboured over most. Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger is enjoyable so far. It's a truly contemporary novel out of India, and is especially interesting to compare to the more traditional The Sea of Poppies. Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole also looks interesting. I'd prefer if neither of the debut authors won, as I always feel a bit sorry for authors who scoop up big prizes on their debut - I worry that the critical expectation for all their subsequent work can hamper their development.

Anyway, I'm off to heat up some pumpkin soup made on Sunday and settle back down with The White Tiger.

...The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga is this year's winner. Just announced live on the BBC's ten o'clock news. I do like when book news makes the headlines!