Wednesday, 26 November 2008

What makes a Man Booker prizewinner?

An interesting book this one: The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. It's this year's winner of the Man Booker Prize, and the first that I've read from the shortlisted titles (I'd expected to see Netherland there, but it didn't make it).

The novel is constructed as a series of seven letters written nightly by the protagonist, Balram Halwai, to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of the People's Republic of China, soon to visit India. The letters present Balram's rise in Indian society (or wealth at any rate) as a model of entrepreneurial culture in modern India, one that Balram believes that the Chinese Premier should adopt. The letters tell the tale of Balram's rise from a poverty-stricken background in the "Darkness" of rural India, to his position as director of his own small company in Bangalore. From the outset, Balram admits to being the murderer of his former employer, and his letters gradually reveal how this came to happen. Along the way he describes a very different India from the one that presents itself to the outside world, the one that Wen Jiabao will see. Balram describes a future-less life of penury and servitude in the Darkness, one that he escapes from through luck and guile, only to take up a similarly put-upon life in Delhi. In this new life, Balram reflects on the inequity and corruption that surrounds him, and comes to understand the features of public life in India that preserve the status quo for the rich. This realisation prompts Balram's murderous assault, and the initiation of his new life.

It's not immediately obvious how this novel came to win the Man Booker. It's not a particularly literary novel in terms of its writing, and in large part is driven by events in Balram's life. However, it does have a rather striking narrator who, though something of a self-aggrandising monster, is surprisingly engaging. And although Balram's story is heavy on event, the novel contains a vivid if excoriating portrait of modern India. Needless to say, the Indian tourist board won't be proudly parading this novel as an example of a culturally strident nation. Having not been to India, I can't attest to the veracity of the novel, but it paints a fairly convincing picture, and one that's liable to keep me away from India!

Overall, while having initial misgivings (did I really want to read a book narrated by a rather opinionated murderer?), I really quite warmed to it as I went along. It does conjure a fairly dystopian India, but does so in a fashion that's never uninteresting. Though it is frequently unpleasant (there's a rather repellent description of the cockroaches with which he shares his Delhi hovel). I suspect that its exotic nature won over the Man Booker judges, but it's certainly a lot more engaging than other prizewinners that I've read over the years (The Sea, for instance ...).

Interestingly, the novelist was on the radio the other day talking about the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai. While he presents an extremely negative picture of India in the novel, in talking about the attacks he was quick to emphasise its essentially liberal democratic nature, somewhat at odds with his scathing portrayal of its politics as terminally corrupt. I guess that while recognising its faults (to understate the case!), he still harbours a love for his home country.


Deditos said... paints a fairly convincing picture, and one that's liable to keep me away from India!

Really? I hope not. I've not read the book, but I've been to India a few times (work and pleasure) and found it to be a great place to visit. Just what does Adiga write to put you off? I suspect every country has novels with enough filth and xenophobia to put off readers from visiting them, but they're usually not representative.

Plumbago said...

First of all, thanks for visiting!

Regarding your query, I was probably being a little melodramatic in my post. While I do struggle being a tourist in locations where wealth gradients are sharp (and this goes for the so-called developed world too), I expect that I'll get around to India at some point.

Adiga's main "complaints" in the novel seem to relate to the chronic inequity in India, and the political corruption that effectively kills any attempts to rectify the situation. While he doesn't exactly lay off frank descriptions of everyday Life in India, I don't think he's xenophobic in the novel, although his central character is certainly something of a sociopath!

Anyway, I thought it was probably more an interesting read than a great novel. On that count, I don't know that I'd rush to recommend it, but it's certainly a rather striking novel.

Thanks again for stopping by!