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Regardless of your opinion of the final text, you can't help admiring Aravind Adiga the almost insane ambition of his first novel. To begin with, it's epistolary, a form that hasn't been in style since the turn of the 18th century. Next, the letters are written by a classic "unreliable narrator," summoning immediate comparison's to Nabokov's Pale Fire [and John Lanchester's tragically underrated Debt to Pleasure.] Then, as if that wasn't biting off enough, Mr. Adiga makes his protagonist the poor driver of a rich family, one member of which he ends up killing, invoking quite intentional comparison to Richard Wright's Native Son. Okay, okay, I hear you saying, that's already more than he could possibly chew. But, wait! There's more! Beyond all the formal and stylistic choices, Mr. Adiga apparently intends the book to be an incisive social criticism of modern India's chaotically entrepenuerial culture, a la Dickens or Zola. Got all that?

The resulting book has been widely praised in the West and won the Man Booker prize. But it has been less welcome in India where the author, though a native son himself, is considered something of an outsider these days, his family having emigrated to Australia, where he went to high school, and having then gone off to both Columbia and Oxford for his subsequent education.

When we gather all these various strands together we can begin to see why the novel is ultimately a tad too incoherent for its own good. The letters that make up the chapters of the book are written over the course of seven nights by Balram Halwai, a Bangalore businessman who--for no discernible reason--has decided to relate the story of his rise from poverty to Wen Jiabao, the premier of the People's Republic of China. You'll hardly need reminding that the addressee is the first among equals in a dictatorial regime that oppresses a billion people. Balram's stated identification with such a monster might be said to be less appalling because he's so ignorant about what life in China is actually like, but that leaves us with a choice between a narrator who's a Maoist or a dunce.

Meanwhile, as is generally the case where an unreliable narrator is involved, Balram is a murderer and a psychopath. As Scientific American informs us:
First described systematically by Medical College of Georgia psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckley in 1941, psychopathy consists of a specific set of personality traits and behaviors. Superficially charming, psychopaths tend to make a good first impression on others and often strike observers as remarkably normal. Yet they are self-centered, dishonest and undependable, and at times they engage in irresponsible behavior for no apparent reason other than the sheer fun of it. Largely devoid of guilt, empathy and love, they have casual and callous interpersonal and romantic relationships. Psychopaths routinely offer excuses for their reckless and often outrageous actions, placing blame on others instead. They rarely learn from their mistakes or benefit from negative feedback, and they have difficulty inhibiting their impulses.
So what are we left with here? A novelist whose personal knowledge of daily life in India we have reason to question, and a narrator who not only would be uninterested in the society around him anyway, but who is either a communist or an imbecile to boot. And yet we're supposed to take seriously the indictment of Indian culture that follows? I don't think so.

Balram is an amusing enough guide that the book is enjoyable for awhile, but such an unpleasant creature under the veneer that he wears thin. The psychopath may fool you initially, but when you figure him out you ought to bail on the relationship. And when tells you that it was all the fault of others that he is what he is, you ought not necessarily believe him. Especially when there are a billion Indians who aren't killing their bosses to get rich quick.

Fittingly enough, there is an alternative reading available to us which reconciles these problems and effectively squares the circle. Just as Pale Fire offers a hilarious send-up of Literary Criticism (see link to review above), so could White Tiger be read as a brilliant parody of the anti-globalization Left. After all, when you put people's words in the mouths of psychopaths, you are suggesting something about the quality of the ideas, are you not?


Grade: (C)


See also:

Asian Literature
Aravind Adiga Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Aravind Adiga
    -AUTHOR SITE: Aravind Adiga
    -AUTHOR SITE: Aravind Adiga (Simon & Shuster)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: The White Tiger
    -EXCERPT: from The White Tiger
    -ESSAY: Book of a Lifetime: Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (Aravind Adiga, 28 March 2008, Independent)
    -ESSAY: My Lost World (Aravind Adiga, Jun. 18, 2006, TIME)
    -ESSAY: Bachelor bigotry: If you want to rent a flat in Mumbai, take care you don't belong to that very worst minority: the single man (Aravind Adiga, 4/28/08,
    -ESSAY: Indians' worst fear: the honest politician: For Indian voters, news of a corruption scandal is a sign of a political system in ruddy good health. It's honesty we distrust ( Aravind Adiga, 7/30/08,
    -SHORT STORY: The Elephant (Aravind Adiga , 1/29/09, The New Yorker)
    -SHORT STORY: Last Christmas in Bandra (Aravind Adiga, 12/19/08, Times of London)
    -SHORT STORY: The Sultan's Battery (Aravind Adiga, 10/18/08, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of OSCAR AND LUCINDA by Peter Carey (Aravind Adiga, Second Circle)
    -REVIEW: of Drown by Junot Diaz (Aravind Adiga, Second Circle)
    -ESSAY: On Adiga's The White Tiger: For a novel that is supposed to be a portrait of the 'real' India, The White Tiger comes across as curiously inauthentic. Is it a novel from one more outsider, presenting cynical anthropologies to an audience that is not Indian? (AMITAVA KUMAR, 11/02/08, The Hindu)
    -PROFILE: Celebrating with Booker Prize Winner Aravind Adiga (William Green, Oct. 15, 2008, TIME)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: In White Tiger, Killer Exploits India's Caste System (Scott Simon, May 17, 2008, Weekend Edition Saturday)
    -INTERVIEW: I highlighted India's brutal injustices: Adiga (Rediff, October 16, 2008)
    -INTERVIEW: Roars of anger: Aravind Adiga's debut novel, The White Tiger, won the Booker prize this week. But its unflattering portrait of India as a society racked by corruption and servitude has caused a storm in his homeland. He tells Stuart Jeffries why he wants to expose the country's dark side (Stuart Jeffries, 10/16/08, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW: with Aravind Adiga (BookBrowse)
    -INTERVIEW: News Review interview: Aravind Adiga: The author, who has just won the Booker with the tale of an Indian killing his way to the top, explains why such murders don’t happen here (Ed Caesar, 10/19/08, Times of London)
    -ARTICLE: Indians fear Aravind Adiga's 'The White Tiger' says too much about them: Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger was praised for highlighting the injustices and poverty present in the rapidly changing India when it won the Man Booker Prize, but now many Indian critics have expressed outrage at the judges' decision. (Amrit Dhillon, 18 Oct 2008, Daily Telegraph)
    -PROFILE: The debonair novelist: He's an award-winning writer who wrings humor from chaos. His dreamy eyes don't hurt. (Salon, 11/20/08)
    -AWARD: The White Tiger 2008 (The Man Booker Prize)
    -AWARD: Aravind Adiga wins Man Booker Prize with The White Tiger (Erica Wagner, 10/15/08, Times of London)
    -AWARD: Novel About India Wins the Man Booker Prize (VICTORIA YOUNG, October 14, 2008 , NY Times)
    -ARCHIVES: Aravind Adiga (The Guardian)
-REVIEW: of The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: for The White Tiger (Reviews of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (S. Prasannarajan, India Today)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (SCOTT MEDINTZ, NY Sun)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Premankur Biswas, Indian Express)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Ben Frumin, Far Eastern Economic Review)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Vikram Johri, St. Petersburg Times)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Peter Robins, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Neel Mukherjee, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (David Mattin, The Independent)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Adam Lively, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Francesca Segal, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Soumya Bhattacharya, The Independent)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Kevin Rushby, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Adrian Turpin, Financial Times)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (AKASH KAPUR, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Sanjay Subrahmanyam , London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Nakul Krishna, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Lee Thomas, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Tony D'Souza, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (New York)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Richard Marcus, BlogCritics)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Charles Larson, Jakarta Post)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (Paul V. Griffith, Nashville Scene)
    -REVIEW: of The White Tiger (HARVEY FREEDENBERG, BookPage)

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