Sunday, August 2, 2009

Tiger, tiger . . .

Pater's recent enjoyment of Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies guided his choice, in an airport bookstore several weeks ago, of Aravind Adiga's Man Booker-winning, The White Tiger, and I'm so glad that was the case. For many years, I made a point of reading the Booker winner each year, and usually also managed a few of the other contenders. Sadly, I haven't been keeping up as well lately, and I'd like to remedy that. This novel is a great incentive to reading more Booker books!

First, the narrative has an inescapable lure from the first page -- an epistolary novel, it's not at all, however, stylistically arch or tiresome in any way as such novels can sometimes be. The framework didn't get in the way at all, but rather added a fascinating argument -- the inevitable solidarity between the "brown" and the "yellow" man, and their twinned triumph over the White -- to an already-compelling tale. White readers "overhearing" this conversation, reading over the shoulder of either correspondent, are simultaneously amused, entertained, and, if they're at all alert to globalization and its relationship to the security of their way of life, alarmed perhaps, alienated at least from a narrative which hopes for their demise or enslavement or irrelevance.

Rather than inviting sympathy, then, as many novels about life in the Indian sub-continent do, this novel throws down a gauntlet, delivers a strident warning. Yet the effect of the epistolary address -- the confessional intimacy of the tone -- is to allow the reader to position herself as the intended reader even though she is a white, middle class North American, rather than a Chinese male Premier (the letter-writing narrator's intended addressee). We imagine ourselves as the narrator's confidante and erase the boundaries between us, adopting his point-of-view. Although there are many clues that he is not to be admired, that the writer keeps his own distance from Munna's morality (or amorality, in certain actions), we somehow sympathize with the cold-blooded choices he makes in order to break out of the Rooster Coop of the Indian social structure.

In fact, it is the seemingly logical appeal of Munna's choices that makes the novel so devastating along with its often-comic delivery. The narrator works effectively in the first 30 pages or so to establish that there is really no way for himself or anyone he knows to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" only by dint of hard work and honesty. Rather, advancement depends on corruption, thievery, and/or violence, and only once he accepts this knowledge and decides to act on it does the narrator have any chance of bettering his conditions. A white North American or European reader must find it hard to deny this apparently likeable character the kind of lifestyle the North American/European takes for granted. Thus we must then consider -- in a world where governments and justice systems are immoral, unjust, and corrupt -- what saves us from those who, like Munna, decide to go the next logical step and make these systems work for themselves.

Like Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, this novel is both comic and devastating, compelling entertainment and wake-up call for social justice on a global scale. We would be foolish to ignore the world these novels represent -- for despite the illusions we cherish, it is our world too, after all.


  1. Wonderful to read your review of The White Tiger - it's in my bedside pile to read next after Sea of Poppies! Like you, I try to read the Booker winner, but don't always succeed ...