The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews The
White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga.
The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

How things change!  The novel of social mobility was once a
trademark of American fiction.   Perhaps its transfer overseas is to
be expected, but when India—the traditional home of a hidebound
caste system—steps forward as the setting
of a grand contemporary rags-to-riches
story, the implications are clear.  Even the
world of fiction, it seems, is flat.    

Then again, Horatio Alger might not recog-
nize his offspring in
The White Tiger the
debut novel by Aravind Adiga and recipient
of the 2008 Man Booker Prize.  Balram
Halwai, our ambitious hero, may be a
successful “entrepreneur” in Bangalore,
but he readily admits in the opening pages
that he needed to commit murder, robbery
and assorted other peccadilloes in order to
get his start-up funded.  Instead of venture capital he relied on
vengeance capital, and the returns have been spectacular.

All the world loves a lover…and a cutthroat businessman too.  As
popular TV shows such from
Dallas to Mad Men have made clear,
audiences prefer the men in suits a little on the sleazy side.   But
when it comes to cutthroat, Balram is not content with a merely
metaphorical interpretation of the term.  He rises from the streets to
a position as chauffeur to a wealthy family, then kills his boss with
the jagged end of a broken Johnny Walker bottle. Then he absconds
with a big bag of cash.  

Oh, did I mention that this is a humorous novel?  Dark humor,
needless to say…as may be appropriate for a story set primarily in
the part of India that Halwai calls
The Darkness.   He sees his own
life as a passage into the light, but along the way he jettisons almost
every meaningful relationship or code of values—brother,
grandmother, boss, religion, the law—in his ascent to independence
and prosperity.   If this were a twelve step program, the opening
mantra would be: “acknowledge no higher power than your own self-

Is this what happens when a country moves outside the orbit of its
own traditions without robust new institutions to take their place?   
Perhaps.   But I’m not sure whether one should read
The White Tiger
as primarily a work of social or political commentary.   I find that I
could get swept up in the crazy momentum of the story, provided I
didn’t stop along the way to debate with the narrator.   If you are of a
certain age, you might remember when Timothy Leary toured with
G. Gordon Liddy to conduct public debates on
the soul of America.   
Entering into a dialogue with Balram Halwai might just be the Indian
equivalent of the same.  

But the pacing and sheer manic sweep of this narrative are
irresistible.  Have you ever gone on a trip with a cynical and comic
traveling companion who has something biting and wickedly funny
to say at every stop on your journey?  Halwai is just such a guide to
modern-day India, and his comments cover everything and
anything: family, marriage, sanitation, politics, police, booze,
religion, shopping malls, water buffalo, traffic, fashion, schools, you
name it.

The story is presented in the form of an epistolary novel.  Halwai,
aka the White Tiger, is writing a series of letters to Chinese Premier
Wen Jiabao.   Wen is planning to visit Bangalore, and our murderous
protagonist wants to give him a different perspective than the
official version.  “Out of respect for the love of liberty shown by the
Chinese people, and also in belief that the future of the world lies
with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile
master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery,
cell phone usage and drug abuse, I offer to tell you, free of charge,
the truth about Bangalore.”

The Bangalore business day is really a business night.  So much of
the economy is driven by call centers that handle out-sourced
customer service work from America, an entrepreneur such as
Halwai finds his most productive hours begin after midnight.  But
even when his work his done, our self-proclaimed White Tiger stays
up until the wee hours preparing his long missives for his Beijing
penpal.   The novel is divided into seven letters from composed on
seven nights.   At the beginning they occasionally embrace the
stately tone of an official communiqué, but by the end of the book
they sound more like another kind of late night confessional, those
found at the neighborhood cocktail lounge where inebriated
habitués share secrets best kept under wraps to a silent bartender.  

The Chinese premier is treated to accounts of the deaths of Halwai’s
parents, his all-too-brief school days, his escape from the
machinations of his surviving relatives, his contrivances in securing
a job as a driver to a wealthy and corrupt family, and his increasing
independence of mind after he moves to the big city.   Our
protagonist vacillates from self-confident proclamations to
apologies for his “half-baked” ideas.  But give him credit, he comes
up with a philosophy of life on his own that is a reasonably close
approximation of Nietzsche’s world view.  I’ll leave it up to you to
decide whether that is to his credit or shame.

Moral judgments aside, our narrator (and his behind-the-scenes
author) know how to spin a story.  Adiga’s previous publication
experiences, before this breakthrough novel, came mostly via
journalistic writing for the
Financial Times, Money, and Time.   You
can occasionally trace the lineage in
The White Tiger—am I going
too far to see a connection between our Bangalore “entrepreneur”
and Donald Trump, whom Adiga once interviewed for an article?—
but the punchy, irreverent attitude of this book is the real hook.   V.
S. Naipaul this is not;  more like a post-colonial Kingsley Amis.

As our narrator reminds us, the white tiger is the rarest of creatures.  
It shows up only once in a generation.  For an author of Indian
ancestry to win the Booker Prize is almost as rare—that happens
once a decade, on average.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if this white
tiger makes a return appearance, at least on the shortlist, before too
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