Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Aravind Adiga, "The White Tiger"

Having never been to India, it's hard to say what the country is actually like, but it's fair to say that Aravind Adiga's debut novel, The White Tiger, has been such a success in America because it's what one imagines we would say the country is like. The rags-to-riches narrative quickly familiarizes capitalists with the story, but it also diminishes the exoticism (how similar all suffering is). The same is true of the voice of Adiga's narrator--while his tale is unique, his glib comic voice, all too familiar (even as a protective mechanism) can at times be deadening. (It's also pretty clearly Adiga writing; for a more impressive act of ventriloquism, see David Eggers's What Is the What.)

Despite these similarities, The White Tiger is a decent read. Like its protagonist, Balram Halwai, who works as a driver, the novel moves quickly, as safely as possible, and successfully transports you from beginning to end--it even occasionally "cracks the egg" of this vehicle to expose the reader to a few eclectic sights and sounds. For the casual reader seeking a "culturally significant" beach read, The White Tiger will serve them well--after all, Halwai introduces himself as a murderer who has become a successful businessman, an enticing (although unsuspenseful hook) that makes us plow on.

Furthermore, because the story is being "told" (relayed in an unsent letter to the premier of "the Freedom-loving Nation of China"), the pacing is neatly separated into sarcastic revelations about the "real" India ("One fact about India is that you can take almost anything you hear about the country from the prime minister and turn it upside down and then you will have the truth about that thing") and his own philosophical musings ("The Indian entrepeneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time"). If there's a problem with any of this, it's that we have to take his smirky word for it; nothing grounds him to real emotion. When he chooses to actually describe his circumstances, it's then that he gets poetically creative--his grandmother, Kusum, is described as having "this habit of rubbing her forearms hard when she felt happy, as if it were a piece of ginger she was grating to release grins from." Sly and sincere at the same time, indeed--and has this entrepenurial author not succeeded in sending The White Tiger to the top of the charts?

Again, all this pandering is not a bad thing, and as a writing style, it does accurately depict the sort of false face that a member of the serving caste has to wear. The problem is that the mask rarely drops: Balram's amoral, and if he regrets condemning his family to death (for his crime), he doesn't show it. In fact, he relates his tale with such polish, such distance, that it hardly seems to have happened to him: why, in other words, should we listen?

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