Thursday, May 4, 2017

Book 75: The White Tiger

 "If I were making a country, I’d get the sewage pipes first, then the democracy, then I’d go about giving pamphlets and statues of Gandhi to other people, but what do I know? I’m just a murderer!"

Read: August 1-3, 2016

Rating: 8/10

Lists/Awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012), Man Booker Prize

Here's a weird thing: I am actively pro-spoiler. Which you've probably noticed reading this blog...I try not to be gratuitous, but I will spoil things if it's necessary to talk about what I want to talk about regarding a book. I maintain that if your work (and I'm including movies and TV here) doesn't hang together if you know the Big Plot Twist, it's because it's not very good in the first place: the characterization, the quality of the writing, the dialogue, the pacing...if those aren't there, you don't have a well-told story, you just have a plot twist. Discovering the why is always more compelling for me than discovering the what.

Which is why I have a soft spot for books, like Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, that tell you their big plot twist right up front. We know at the end of the first chapter that our narrator Balram, a former servant turned entrepreneur in India, killed his former master. What unfolds over the rest of the book is the story of why. It's the story of India in the modern day, a place of desperate poverty but also extravagant wealth, where ancient temples are just as much a part of life as smartphones. Balram is born into poverty in a rural area, and even though he seems destined to become a laborer, he resists the forces (including his family) that try to keep him in the underclass as long as he can. He finds himself a position as a driver for an upper-class landowner, and eventually moves with one of the landowner's sons to New Delhi to be his driver there.

New Delhi fundamentally changes both that son, Ashok, and Balram. Ashok has been educated in America, and treats his servants more or less like people. As he gets more and more sucked into the mire of his family's business (they're in the coal industry, and Ashok does a lot of running around with briefcases full of money to drop off with various politicians and officials), he becomes harder and harsher. When Balram is nearly forced to take the fall for a bad accident caused by Ashok's wife's drunk driving, Balram realizes that even as far as he's come from his roots, he's still not really safe. As long as he's poor and a servant, he'll always be expendable. But in order to get out of his situation, he needs money, and the money he has the easiest access to? Those briefcases that he's driving Ashok around with.

It's a dark satire, and after reading a lot of Serious Literature, I appreciated its wit and liveliness even more than I otherwise might have. But I would have enjoyed it no matter what. It's an epistolary novel (Balram writes to the prime minister of China, who is visiting India at the time, to explain India's entrepreneurial spirit), which allows it to skip around in time a little for maximum impact...we know that he's committed murder and gone on to start his own business, but how (and why) did he do it? How did he get away with it? What exactly does he do now?  The organic tension propels the book forward without being too mysterious. Balram is an indelible character, and I really appreciated the way that Adiga developed Ashok as well, portraying his moral decay even though we only see him through Balram's eyes. It's a quick read that manages to be thought-provoking while still being entertaining.

 Tell me, blog do you feel about spoilers?

One year ago, I was reading: Enchanted Islands

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