The White Tiger

Might just be the first Booker Prize winner I have read (I've forgotten which McEwan won). Modern literature is pretty foreign territory for me, being crowded out by pulp (comics and prose) and the occasional classic. Read this one very quickly (it is readable), but come out with mixed feelings.

The aim of the novel is straightforward: to provide an inescapably bleak vision of India through the eyes of a smiling psychopath, who understands a thing or two about irony, and who has escaped the 'Darkness' through murder and theft. Sounds more exciting than it is, unfortunately. Most of the novel deals with the narrator as servant -- not just a job but a state of mind. One that keeps the majority of Indians inside the 'chicken coop' -- exploited and powerless. Only when all his illusions about his master are destroyed does Balram Halwai get ruthless, and the White Tiger, a rare beast, get unleashed.

The murder and theft mentioned above is actually one incident. No epic noir criminal spree here (mind fondly recollects The Moor's Last Sigh). And we are told about Balram's betrayal and emancipation at the very beginning, which I think was a mistake, as it robs the novel of any kind of tension. I knew exactly where the story was going, and I wasn't in any way disappointed.

But I think my problems with the book run deeper than that. Two weeks ago I finished Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I haven't posted about it because I don't have the capacity to say anything particularly worthwhile. The book has similar themes: pulling yourself up by your bootstraps (or in McCarthy-speak, "whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man's will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay"). Also man's essentially mercenary nature question mark. Poetically and cognitively, Blood Meridian is a giant that crushes everything in its path. By comparison, the narrator in The White Tiger is no poet, neither is he much of a philosopher. His descriptions of India's barbarism never inspired true horror, nor much reflection.

Until the very end, that is. Balram describes his business, the way he works corrupt policemen, how he dodges punishment for the people who die under the wheels of his drivers. But the scales are balanced the other way as well. He treats his employees fairly, and not in a disingenuous paternalistic fashion. He pays weregild for the deaths he causes. Most importantly, he is free of hypocrisy. Most powerful people, he says, politicians and entrepreneurs, have buried bodies on their way to the top. For him, it was the only way out of the miserable poverty he was born in. Can you blame me? he asks, and it becomes difficult to. An extraordinary position to be put in, as a reader.

The final chapter can almost stand on its own. The rest of the novel is flawed, I think, but it is worth ploughing through to reach that carefully balanced finish. Or if that is not enough of a recommendation, trade India for the Wild West and go read Blood Meridian. And good luck to you.

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