Wednesday, February 24, 2010

If you liked The White Tiger...

I admit that I had some trouble getting caught up by Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger. It wasn't what the book was. The voice of Balram Halwai, the narrator, was alive and consistent. The plot moved, driven at a good pace by the protagonist's increasingly desperate decisions. The underlying theme--poverty and the diminished choices that accompany it--was clear and competently illustrated. As Balram says:

"[Bangalore] has its share of thugs and politicians. It's just that here, if a man wants to be good, he can be good. In Lanxmangarh [the narrator's impoverished home town], he doesn't even have this choice. That is the difference between this India and that India: the choice."

The irony is, of course, that the entire story is driven by the self-nicknamed White Tiger's choices. You can pin-point times at which Balram could have chosen a different way. Maybe not a pristine way, but a different one. Lying over prostitution. Deceit over murder. And, so, the reader is left to ponder that paradox: Poverty decimates an individual's options, but it cannot remove the free will to choose between a bad path and a worse one.

All that to say, I didn't have trouble with The White Tiger because of what it was. It was what the book wasn't. It wasn't Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Rushdie's second novel won the esteemed Man Booker Prize 27 years before The White Tiger did. Maybe comparisons aren't fair, but, Adiga, you're setting me up: The quirky narrator of questionable morals? The first-person storytelling address? (In White Tiger, Balram writes to Wen Jiabao, the premier of China. Rushdie's Saleem Sinai narrates his life story to Padma, his short-tempered muse, cook and love.) The indictment of India's failings? Rushdie did it all before, and he did it with language that blooms and boils and bursts. The images and metaphors snake and shine. Let me open to a random page and point to a random sentence. Maybe you will forgive me, then, for not being able to get over Rushdie to appreciate whats-his-name.
"On and off the cheetah-seat, Evie performed. One foot on the seat, one leg stretched out behind her, she whirled around us; she built up speed and then did a headstand on the seat! She could straddle the front wheel, facing the rear, and work the pedals the wrong way round. . . gravity was her slave, speed her element, and we knew that a power had come among us, a witch on wheels, and the flowers of the hedgerows threw her petals, the dust of the circus-ring stood up in clouds of ovation, because the circus-ring had found its mistress, too: it was the canvas beneath the brush of her whirling wheels."
This isn't a crucial portion of the book. It isn't its lyrical climax. It's simply one of several grafs introducing Saleem's childhood crush. But every paragraph has at least this level of attention and craft. Every one. So, I'm sorry, The White Tiger, but you're always going to play Coldplay to Midnight's Children's U2. It's just the way it is.

- Sarah Mueller

1 comment:

  1. This, of course, assumes that one believes U2 is, in fact, superior to Coldplay. Which is, as always, a point of taste. Bring on some Oasis!