Author: Aravind Adiga

Free Press, 2008

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Right of the bat, narrator/protagonist Balram writes of the murder he committed, yet I gladly read through the book to hear his story. This is always a sign of good writing and a good book, and is an especially commendable feat in a debut novel. To willingly give oneself up to the whim of the narrator rather than to trudge through the book in search of looming plot twists requires a reader’s full trust and delight in an author. I quickly trusted Adiga, and as White Tiger was the winner of the 2008 Man Booker prize, it’s clear I wasn’t the only one to be won over. The dark humor of this book is of the perfect tint, and the plot and narration hits all the right notes.

More so than that of other nationalities, Indian writing has always intrigued me with its constant push and pull with Indian culture. Indian writers tend to use their works as a means of grappling with their racial and cultural identity, using the setting of the country as a fulcrum between pride and loathing. This book is both a love letter to an and indictment of India and her people, trumpeting cultural pride, especially that of the lower castes, while simultaneously demonstrating how this pride has plunged the people into a ping pong match between socialism and a corrupt, almost feudal, hierarchical system posing as democracy (in fact, the book is structured as a letter to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, as an introduction to the country he is soon to visit). A more apt comparison might be to a chicken coup, as Balram makes repeatedly:

Go to Old Dehli, behind the Jama Masjid, and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages, packed as tightly as worms in a belly, pecking each other and shitting on each other, jostling just for breathing space; the whole cage giving off a horrible stench–the stench of terrified, feathered flesh. On the wooden desk above this coop sits a grinning young butcher, showing off the flesh and organs of a recently chopped-up chicken, still oleaginous with a coating of dark blood. The roosters in the coop smell blood from above. They see the organs of their brother lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop.

Balram reminds me a lot of Humbert Humbert in that he is the best sort of unreliable narrator: both charming and threatening. At times his narration is cool and violent, lashing from some part of his past he has only partially revealed. Then other times he carries a welcoming and provincial appeal like the beer-buddy George Bush of 2000. More often than not though, Balram elicits pity from his reader:

Servants need to abuse other servants. It’s been bred into us, the way Alsatian dogs are bred to attack strangers. We attack anyone who’s familiar.

It is sometimes difficult to discern, especially as the book draws to a close, whether this pity is deserved or the product of Balram’s manipulation. This is a wonderful and masterful effect produced by Adiga.

The book’s ending is a good one. Plot-wise, the events are revealed near the beginning, but the Balram that develops over the course of the novel is not the same man who we imagine on the opening pages, and therefore some of the choices he makes take on some interesting questions of philosophy and morality. White Tiger is a great book, and fans of narrator-driven literary fiction should read it.

Recommended Books: The Remains of the Day (Ishiguro), Fight Club (Palahniuk), White Teeth (Smith), Death on the Installment Plan (Céline), Lolita (Nabokov)