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The New Canon: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

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How things change! The novel of social mobility was once a trademark of American fiction. Perhaps its transfer overseas is to be expected, but when India—the traditional home of a hidebound caste system—steps forward as the setting of a grand contemporary rags-to-riches story, the implications are clear. Even the world of fiction, it seems, is flat.

Then again, Horatio Alger might not recognize his offspring in The White Tiger the debut novel by Aravind Adiga and recipient of the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Balram Halwai, our ambitious hero, may be a successful “entrepreneur” in Bangalore, but he readily admits in the opening pages that he needed to commit murder, robbery and assorted other peccadilloes in order to get his start-up funded. Instead of venture capital he relied on vengeance capital, and the returns have been spectacular.

All the world loves a lover…and a cutthroat businessman too. As popular TV shows such from Dallas to Mad Men have made clear, audiences prefer the men in suits a little on the sleazy side. But when it comes to cutthroat, Balram is not content with a merely metaphorical interpretation of the term. He rises from the streets to a position as chauffeur to a wealthy family, then kills his boss with the jagged end of a broken Johnny Walker bottle. Then he absconds with a big bag of cash.

Oh, did I mention that this is a humorous novel? Dark humor, needless to say…as may be appropriate for a story set primarily in the part of India that Halwai calls The Darkness. He sees his own life as a passage into the light, but along the way he jettisons almost every meaningful relationship or code of values—brother, grandmother, boss, religion, the law—in his ascent to independence and prosperity. If this were a twelve step program, the opening mantra would be: “acknowledge no higher power than your own self-interest.”

Is this what happens when a country moves outside the orbit of its own traditions without robust new institutions to take their place? Perhaps. But I’m not sure whether one should read The White Tiger as primarily a work of social or political commentary. I find that I could get swept up in the crazy momentum of the story, provided I didn’t stop along the way to debate with the narrator. If you are of a certain age, you might remember when Timothy Leary toured with G. Gordon Liddy to conduct public debates on the “soul of America.” Entering into a dialogue with Balram Halwai might just be the Indian equivalent of the same.

But the pacing and sheer manic sweep of this narrative are irresistible. Have you ever gone on a trip with a cynical and comic traveling companion who has something biting and wickedly funny to say at every stop on your journey? Halwai is just such a guide to modern-day India, and his comments cover everything and anything: family, marriage, sanitation, politics, police, booze, religion, shopping malls, water buffalo, traffic, fashion, schools, you name it.

The book is written in the form of an epistolary novel. Halwai, aka The White Tiger, is writing a series of letters to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Wen is planning to visit Bangalore, and our murderous protagonist wants to give him a different perspective than the official version. “Out of respect for the love of liberty shown by the Chinese people, and also in belief that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, cell phone usage and drug abuse, I offer to tell you, free of charge, the truth about Bangalore.”

The Bangalore business day is really a business night. So much of the economy is driven by call centers that handle out-sourced customer service work from America, an entrepreneur such as Halwai finds his most productive hours begin after midnight. But even when his work his done, our self-proclaimed White Tiger stays up until the wee hours preparing his long missives for his Beijing penpal. The novel is divided into seven letters from composed on seven nights. At the beginning they occasionally embrace the stately tone of an official communiqué, but by the end of the book they sound more like another kind of late night confessional, those found at the neighborhood cocktail lounge where inebriated habitués share secrets best kept under wraps to a silent bartender.

The Chinese premier is treated to accounts of the deaths of Halwai’s parents, his all-too-brief school days, his escape from the machinations of his surviving relatives, his contrivances in securing a job as a driver to a wealthy and corrupt family, and his increasing independence of mind after he moves to the big city. Our protagonist vacillates from self-confident proclamations to apologies for his “half-baked” ideas. But give him credit, he comes up with a philosophy of life on his own that is a reasonably close approximation of Nietzsche’s world view. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that is to his credit or shame.

Moral judgments aside, our narrator (and his behind-the-scenes author) know how to spin a story. Adiga’s previous publication experiences, before this breakthrough novel, came mostly via journalistic writing for the Financial Times, Money, and Time. You can occasionally trace the lineage in The White Tiger)—am I going too far to see a connection between our Bangalore “entrepreneur” and Donald Trump, whom Adiga once interviewed for an article?—but the punchy, irreverent attitude of this book is the real hook. V.S. Naipaul this is not; more like a post-colonial Kingsley Amis.

As our narrator reminds us, the white tiger is the rarest of creatures. It shows up only once in a generation. For an author of Indian ancestry to win the Booker Prize is almost as rare—that happens once a decade, on average. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this white tiger makes a return appearance, at least on the shortlist, before too long.

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About Ted Gioia