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Reading Salon: Booker Shortlist and Little Giant

The Sunday Salon.com

I have finished the review of The White Tiger but I have set my heart to read all five other books short-listed for this year’s Booker Prize to see how it measures up to the contenders.

Aravind Adiga The White Tiger (Atlantic) Winner
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture (Faber and Faber)
Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies (John Murray)
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago)
Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate)
Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton)

I have enjoyed The Glass Palace and In an Antique Land so I will begin with Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppins. At the bookstore I purchased a copy of The Secret Scripture, which will be my last book for the Man Booker Reading Challenge. Meanwhile a stream of ARCs will be feeding my bookish appetite. Right off the bat is a novel that features local San Francisco author publicity. The debut novel will be published on Januray 8, 2009.

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker is your typical Ugly Betty type of story, but with more consequence. When Truly Plaice’s mother was pregnant, the town of Aberdeen joined together in betting how recordbreakingly huge the baby boy would ultimately be. The girl who proved to be Truly paid the price of her enormity. Truly Plaise is born a giant. She is all about bumps and bulges, Her father blames her for her mother’s death in childbirth. The preacher’s wife believes she has got the making of Satan in her. The school teacher calls her a little giant. Her education is stalled before it even starts. While her remarkable size makes her the target of constant humiliation and curiosity, her sister Serena Jane is an epitome of feminine perfection. The book does not read like chick lit although the major characters are girls. Forty pages into this novel set in 1950s New England, I’m already in the thrall of this unique book endowed with a mesmerizing folkloric feel. Tiffany Baker’s writing is very lyrical.

By the way, I finally become a member of Goodreads! I have to search for my friends who are on it. Are you on Goodreads? Let’s take a head count.

[164] The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2008

“I watched him walk behind the bamboo bars. Black stripes and sunlit white fur flashed through the slits in the dark bamboo; it was like watching the slowed-down reels of an old black-and-white film. He was walking in the same line, again and again—from one end of the bamboo bars to the other, then turning around and repeating it over, at exactly the same pace, like a thing under a spell.” [237]

The White Tiger is Balram Halwai’s confession of his murdering the master. It’s a letter (isn’t epistle the trendy literary form) addressed to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier, before his imminent state visit to India. Balram speaks in recollection under this chandelier over seven nights. The incendiary remarks with which he carps on China’s lack of democracy can never be more timely apropos of the Beijing Olympic Games:

“I gather you yellow-skinned men, despite your triumphs in sewage, drinking water, and Olympic gold medals, still don’t have democracy.” [80]

But this viciously sardonic voice does not just gnaw on China, it’s meant to be satirical of India. Balram spells out his pieces of mind, which seem rather random at the beginning and sound like ranting, about his country—poverty, corruption, and marginalization of wealth. Trimmed to the bone The White Tiger is the rueful tale of how he is corrupted from a sweet, innocent, family-loving village fool into an urbanized fellow full of debauchery, depravity and wickedness. All these changes happen in him partly because they have first taken place in his master, Mr. Ashok, who has returned from America “full of stupid ideas.” A servant is like a son to his master—and servitude is perpetual, just like being born into the lower caste is for life. Critics accuse Adiga’s writing about poverty at home being opportunistic, but aren’t books on China’s human rights just as opportunistic?

Revealed from the layers of social nuances and scenes of New Delhi lives are the deeply disturbing truths of a man-eat-man world: You eat or get eaten up. As befit to the beastly allusion of the title, humans are metaphorized as animals that struggle to survive:

“Go to a teashop anywhere along the Ganga, sir, and look at the men working in that teashop—men, I say, but better call them human spiders that go crawling in between and under the tables with rags in their hands, crushed humans in crushed uniforms…” [43]

To deal a heavier blow on the imbecile post-colonial government, Balram equates the most corrupted and depraved politicians, those who would do whatever it takes, even to kill some along the way to reach the top, as wild animals that attack and rip each other apart.

“—the day the British left—the cages had been let open; and the animals ripped each other apart and the zoo became a jungle.” [54]

Small people—the forgotten, the stricken, the unprivileged, the impecunious, and the homeless are caught between power struggles of political struggles. They are trapped in the vicious cycle that usually renders their lives even more miserable. They are like wounded stray dogs:

“A pink patch of skin—an open wound—glistened on its left shank; and the dog had twisted on itself in an attempt to gnaw at the wound. The wound was going crazy from pain—trying to attack the wound with its slavering mouth, it kept moving in mad, precise, pointless circles.” [213]

Through Balram’s eyes, we see India as we have never seen it before: the cockroaches, the prostitutes, and the worshippers of multiple gods, which don’t create morality. Trapped in so many kinds of cages that escape is almost impossible is the white tiger—nickname given to Balram for his merit in school. Soon he realizes money cann’t solve all the problems, but at least he could make the leap from darkness into light, which, paradoxically, is darker than darkness. The White Tiger is a well-written book of our time. Its amoral and irreverent themes are authentically contemporary in a world shaped by massive globalization.

Other Reviews:
Book Crazy
The Mookse and the Gripes
Tuesday in Silhouette

White Tiger? Booker Prize?

Book review: [164] White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

Despite critics from all over are shocked at Aravind Adiga’s surprise winning of the Book Prize, I have taken up The White Tiger. Eileen Battersby at the Irish Times comments about his “surprise victory” of winning the award for this novel. She further notes that Adiga’s win “left the literary establishment gasping, perhaps even bewildered.” Whether the book is crude and opportunistic as Miss Battersby has deemed, it is definitely an eclectic read, I mean, somewhat weird.

Balram Halwai tells the transfixing story, which is meant for Chinese Premier (god knows why) Wen Jaobao, of how he came to the success in life with his own wits. But he is a murderer who cuts off his employer’s neck. He recovers his story over seven nights under this preposterous chandelier that barely fits his room. Anyway, when he was a boy, his family took out a huge loan to finance his cousin’s wedding. Taken out of school he had to break coals for a living. being the brightest kid in school, he was dubbed the White Tiger:

The inspector pointed his cane straight at me. “You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In this jungle, you are the rarest of animals—the creature that comes along only once in a generation.”
He paused.
“The white tiger.” [30]

Adiga’s message isn’t subtle or novel, but Balram’s appealingly sardonic voice and acute observations of the social order are very unsettling. So far it’s a bit weird and shaky. Booker Prize?

The Short List:
Aravind Adiga The White Tiger (Atlantic)
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture (Faber and Faber)
Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies (John Murray)
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago)
Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate)
Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton)