Saturday, May 17, 2008

aravind's book

By now, those of you with literary pretensions will already have read Aravind Adiga's first novel, The White Tiger. I'm coming a little late in the game. But nonetheless:

I don't want to "review" the book. That's something I only do for money, and, these days, I don't even do it for money, having lost my outlet for that kind of thing. But I will say that it's as good as the positive reviews make it out to be--somewhat less impressive than Mohsin Hamid's Moth Smoke, I think, but perhaps more skillfully executed in its own way. In a nutshell, this is all the stuff Aravind was never able to write for Time Magazine, because these problems are eternal and therefore not "news." The best thing about it is its anger.

Rather, I'd like to address a few points made by at least some of the local reviewers (who, it must be said, did not recuse themselves despite their own feelings of literary jealousy): (1) that the book is somehow flawed because it was "written for the foreign audience" (2) that the gimmick of the narrative--a letter addressed to Chinese Premiere Wen Libao--is unrealistic and (3) that the book's endorsement of violence is somehow morally repugnant.

Points 1 and 2 are really related ones. The use of the Chinese Premier is a device that allows the narrator to explain things that an Indian may already know about--which some have misread as indicating that it is written for the dreaded "foreign audience" who are always frustrating educated Indians with their insistence on seeing elephants, snake charmers, and starving people where there are none. It's a gimmick, of course. But the tone makes it clear from the beginning that it's being used with a wink and a nod, so calling Aravind out for its lack of realism is both uncharitable and absurd--essentially outing the reviewer as somebody with his own unpublished (or justly forgotten) novel someplace. The contention that the book is written for the foreign audience--as opposed, I suppose, to One Night @ The Call Center and the like--is equally ridiculous, it should go without saying. But even if "writing for the foreign audience" was actually a literary crime of some kind-- perhaps because it tempts the writer into oversimplifying? perhaps focuses him too readily on the exotic--again the tone of Aravind's book makes it crystal clear who his audience is. This book skewers India's English-speaking middle class (perhaps unfairly, at times) and takes as its "enemy" all the dreams that they hold for the country. It's not exactly a satire, but it has the same vicious bite. Who else, then, can the audience be than the people getting bitten? (See also one of Aravind's best responses to an interview question about whether it's really possible that a DRIVER might write a letter to the Chinese premier: "You're betraying your class.")

The third point, that the book's murderer hero should be caught and punished (though it's never been articulated so baldly) also betrays the class of the reviewer. The fantasy that the thousands of servants who murder their masters (seemingly more common, or more feared, based on recent newspaper reports) represent some kind of proto-revolutionaries is also a device Aravind clearly uses with a wink and a nod, his real agenda being to point out how amazing it is that there has been no great uprising against the obvious injustices faced by the poor. I suppose there were people who complained similarly about Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas (Native Son), on both sides of the black-white divide, even though Bigger did face justice in the end.

Like every novel, The White Tiger has its flaws. But as far as I can tell, the false ones that reviewers have pointed out have said more about them than about the book.

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