Monday, October 26, 2009

White Tiger

I really enjoyed The White Tiger. Great suggestion for the book club! It had great action, characters, plot, style, and social commentary. I particularly like how Adiga conveyed the consequences of the stark class differences in India and the drudgery and desperation to which the non-elite masses are subject. Adiga says in his interview at the end of the book that he believes that someone would have to do something of the magnitude of what Balram did to break out of poverty and he is probably right.

The first thing I liked about The White Tiger was the unusual format: a letter to the Chinese prime minister. It was a literary risk that seemed to pay off, allowing Balram to fully express his smugness and callous to someone that he arrogantly assumes would be interested in his opinion. It was also just kind of amusing. Through this and other devices, Adiga succeeds in creating an air of sinister cynicism that was surprisingly engaging.

As Mom said, Balram is a fascinating character. Watching his corruption as he claws and ultimately murders his way up to a higher social class was chilling and thought-provoking, reminding us that power corrupts and that the oppressed can become the oppressors. Further, I think Adiga was suggesting that this transition is a necessary consequence of a society with an extreme wealth gap. Republican tax-cutters and CEOs beware lest Balram comes for you!

Mom brought up an interesting point about the inherent exploitation that can exist when a privileged educated author writes a story about the underprivileged for an audience of similarly privileged readers. This has to be balanced against the societal value of raising awareness. I didn't quite share Mom's concerns in this case and I thought that the characterizations of Balram's acquaintances were an integral part of the main character's personality and yearning to escape the life of an indentured servant. How real these thoughts and feelings are among actual would-be Balrams though I don't know.

Finally, I wanted to comment on the author's craft. At another point in the interview at the end of the book, Adiga said he wanted to make the book not boring and I think he did a great job with this. The plot clipped along and didn't meander into meaninglessness as did Naive Super or plod along with pointless detail as did David Copperfield. This is a rare trait in a novel and I think the last book that did this for me from the book club was A Confederacy of Dunces. I look forward to more like it!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

White Tiger

I read the White Tiger a second time. It was even better the second time, although darker.
I think it is a great book and deserved the prize it won.

But I found myself wondering about the motives of those who praised it. The White Tiger aptly and rightfully exposes and critiques corruption in India, but at the same time it reeks of a snobby middle class delicacy about the filth of the poor. This is an issue of class, not nationality. The author is just as disgusted by the poor as his Oxford peers and those who reviewed the book and loved its honesty.

I began to notice this because the author harped so much on the chewing of betel leaf. It is gross by our standards to be sure, but it is also a respite and relief for those who live lives of unrelieved poverty and work. Naming a character "Vitiligo-Lips" was just mean, and dehumanized him. The author could not stop talking about his pink lips.

I realize these are literary devices, but there comes a moment when the device becomes simply an expression of disgust and nothing more. I wanted the author to be a little less squeamish. But at least he lives in India and is not one of those over-refined expats.

What I think is brilliant about the White Tiger is the complexity of Ashok. He is corrupt, weak, myopic, and disloyal. But at the same time his humanity breaks out occasionally, only to be immediately squelched by India's history and culture. Their sheer weight make it difficult for people to get out from under. I think he may be underappreciated compared to Balram, who is of course, a tour de force character.

The Indians I have talked to verify that corruption is everywhere from low level public servants and service employees to the highest ranks of business and government. This makes me appreciate even more our Wild West traditions of going after the bad guys in our never-ending morality plays, cast as they are in simple, black-and-white terms. Europeans laugh at this simplicity, but I think the notion of clear right and wrong helps keep a check on corruption without the cloying uniformity that Europeans use to effect the same. Americans can be wacky and creative and individualistic (and I think we have something of a corner on the market here) without tipping over too far into the sinkholes of amorality that confront India, as Adiga wrote about.

Great find Christopher. I rarely read a contemporary novel so interesting. I think partly it is because The White Tiger is actually very old-fashioned; it has a real plot, it is not crafted from bored cynicism (like Naive Super), it engages a clear morality, and it is happy to entertain. Perhaps there is a colonial sensibility here; Adiga may be more in touch with 19th and early 20th century literature because of growing up upper class in India where education is more traditional and less likely to be prey to the House on Mango Street mentality here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

the White Tiger

The White Tiger prepared me for it's climax, but I refused to believe it; at the end I was a little horrified but since then have given it my approval.

I read it a long time ago and what I remember most was it's critique of capitalism and looking after one's self. It was in an extreme sense, of course, but the extremity was Aravind Adiga's device. He craftily showed us what is at stake and what it takes to escape from the dregs. (I don't have my copy with me sadly because I gave it to Mom.) The protagonist was demonstrably badly off and the whole novel I sympathized with his situation. But in that atrocious act (killing his employer) I lurched away, taking my sympathy with me.

Stealing the reader's sympathy for the protagonist is what Adiga had in mind - it forced reflection. It's easy to sympathize with one less fortunate, but when push comes to shove I didn't have what it takes to support the protagonist when things got real (as they said in the parlance of the turn of the millenium).

Like a good novel I thought about it a little more after reading it and overtime I began to retrieve my harsh judgements of the main character. I haven't gotten to condoning it yet, but I wouldn't castigate him as much as before.

All this happened with him telling me the entire book he was going to do it! I basically refused to believe it. After it happened I re-read it and thought, "oh yeah, he said that was going to happen..."

The other devise I loved was his analogy with the rooster coup, or whatever it was. I wish I had my copy. He brought it up a lot earlier on and then finished with it really well; every now and again one of the roosters gets out and who knows whether he'll make it or get thrown back in.