The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. Published 2008 by Simon & Schuster. 2008 Winner of the Man Booker Prize. Literary Fiction.
The White Tiger is a difficult, morally challenging novel, told in the first person by one Balram Halwai, a complicated and unreliable narrator. The story is told in a series of letters to a Chinese official who may soon be visiting India, ostensibly intended to be Balram's life story and an introduction to Indian culture, but it's more than that. Among other things, it's an indictment of a ruthlessly class-driven society where a great part of the population is underfed, undereducated and underdeveloped, a paean to capitalism and entrepreneurship; an understated critique of the United States, and lastly (and by no means least) a detailed, lengthy self-serving justification for murder.
Raised in poverty and employed by as a chauffeur by wealthy (if somewhat ineffectual) coal magnate Mr. Ashok, Balram narrates the story as part Dale Carnegie, part Raskolnikov and part Nietzschean Superman. He is filled with contempt for the upper classes but serves them with fealty. As a chauffeur he sees Mr. Ashok's private life in intimate detail and is subject to all manner of mistreatment, condescension and privations. He's also whip-smart and observant, learning ruthless opportunism from his front-row seat to Mr. Ashok's wheedlings and briberies. Balram's first step up occurs when he replaces Mr. Ashok's primary driver by exposing him as a Muslim; the driver is fired and Balram is rewarded with a bed to sleep in. Later, after a series of humiliations and breathtaking betrayals, he makes a devastating choice that changes at least three lives forever.
Balram is a difficult man to admire, but it's easy to be lead along by the reins of his screwy logic and breezy self-confidence. The thing to remember about The White Tiger is that it's a satire- in other words, it's supposed to be over-the-top and overstated. Balram is a charming sociopath but he's more than that- he's a monster created by the screwed up world he describes even as he deconstructs and manipulates it- simultaneously marginalized and deeply assimilated. And he's a relentless narcissist. The one person in the world he loves- his nephew Dharam- is a younger version of himself, another cagey, smart little boy who could end up as another servant, but Balram wants better for him. And I think Balram wants better for India and for all of us but has only the limited tools of his "half-baked" education and morality to guide him.
I picked up The White Tiger because it won the Man Booker Prize and I generally enjoy Booker winners, and because it's about India, a long-standing casual interest of mine, and because it had a nice blurb by another satirist I admire, Gary Shteyngart, on the back cover. Shteyngart wrote the wonderful Absurdistan, one of my favorite books of last year, and if he liked it, how could I go wrong? The White Tiger is a fantastic, gripping, disturbing, page-turning and challenging novel of the new world economy- a story of those it uplifts and those it crushes. It's not an easy read and it's not going to be everybody's cup of tea but I think it's amazing.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.