August 14, 2008

Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger

Posted in Adiga Aravind, Booker Prize 2008 at 7:46 am by John Self

Aravind Adiga is one of five debut novelists on this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist, and one of four from the Indian subcontinent. (What was that about ‘geographical balance’ again?) If you think I’m laying a not-too-subtle hint here by lumping him in as one of many others, with nothing distinguishing of his own, then you may have a point.

To describe it in relation to last year’s Booker Prize titles, The White Tiger has superficial similarities to both Animal’s People (a ‘quirky’ first person narrative) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (a one-sided exchange between two people). Here, our narrator is Balram Halwai, an Indian “social entrepreneur” and the White Tiger of the title. He grew up in a family too poor even to give him a proper name, so his schoolteacher calls him Balram (“he was the sidekick of the god Krishna”), and a school inspector, impressed by Balram’s ability, gives him the identity which will fuel his story.

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 any jungle, what is the rarest animal – the creature that comes along only once in a generation?’

I thought about it and said:

‘The white tiger.’

‘That’s what you are, in this jungle.’

And so Balram sees himself: as an animal struggling for success in a pit which must be climbed out of, the village of Laxmangarh in Bangalore. (“I wonder if the Buddha walked through Laxmangarh – as some people say he did. My own feeling is that he ran through it – as fast as he could – and got to the other side – and never looked back!”) Balram is telling all this in a series of letters to the Chinese President, Weng Jiabao, from his position as a successful entrepreneur.

Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don’t have entrepreneurs. And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them.

Balram tells Premier Jiabao how he got where he is today, from the bottom of the heap. It is these scenes which are the most diverting part of the book, detailing the miseries and horrors of the class and caste system in modern India. The son of a rickshaw-puller (“my father’s spine was a knotted rope”), Balram gets a job as a driver for businessman Mr Ashok. It is here, still quite early in the book, where Adiga’s tale begins to droop.

The primary issue is one of characterisation, or lack of it. It’s a given that a book need not have ‘fully rounded’ characters (I’m not even sure what the term means) for me to enjoy it. There have been discussions on this site recently about the tradition of larger-than-life, non-realistic characters particularly in Indian and middle-eastern literature. But Adiga is telling a thoroughly Westernised story, in A-to-B novel form, and the problem is that his characters aren’t even large-print caricatures. They’re too small to see. In terms of behaviour and – especially – dialogue, most of the players are indistinguishable from one another. Take the names away and Ashok and Pinky Madam and the Mongoose and the Stork having nothing to identify them. This matters because the whole of the book will turn on Balram’s resentment of his employer, who so far as I could see, never did anything to warrant such dramatic consequences. It also weakens the central ideas, some of which are interesting, such as the ‘Rooster Coop’ of servility, and the political background with the Great Socialist. These are not explored in great depth, nor is the irony of Balram’s eventual transformation into that which he most hates. The worst crime is that for most of the book’s length, this potentially fascinating tale is drop-dead boring.

The denouement of the book is revealed at the start, so there is no attempt to keep the reader in suspense other than through the explanation for Balram’s revenge on his master, which remains unconvincing. For a study of the balance of power in a master-servant relationship which is so far ahead of The White Tiger that it makes my cheeks burn in embarrassment to mention them in the same sentence, read Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant. For what the Sunday Times on the back cover calls a “bald, angry, unadorned portrait of [India] as seen from the bottom of the heap,” read Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People. Because, to return to the comparisons I made at the start of this post, the title from last year’s Booker which The White Tiger most resembles is in fact Nikita Lalwani’s Gifted: a book which charms to begin with but lost my interest, and a forgettable debut for which the most striking question is not, How on earth did it get onto the Booker longlist, but How did it get published in the first place?

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128 Comments »

  1. Oh dear, here’s another one. My Booker longlist is getting shorter every day. I did not think I wanted to read this one either and you have clinched it for me. I just ordered The Northern Clemency from Book Depository. That I am looking forward to.

  2. redheadrambles said,

    JS – I have been keeping an eye out for your review , I had gathered that you didn’t enjoy the book that much. I think you are a shade or too stronger in your dislike of the book than I was. I didn’t find the book “drop-dead boring”, in fact I thought it was quite a page turner in its way. For some reason I also never questioned the reasoning behind Balram’s decision to kill Mr Ashok. I am however in total agreement that this was not a wise addition to the Booker longlist (this will probably mean it will take out the prize!)

  3. John Self said,

    Yes Candy, I am looking forward to The Northern Clemency too – partly because I want to give it another chance after giving up on it earlier this year, and partly because it’s the last on my list of Booker reads and then I will have finished with them!

    Redhead, to be honest I thought The White Tiger was a complete waste of time. As I might have said elsewhere, in a sense I disliked it even more than I did Child 44 because it seems to have pretensions to literature.

  4. Is it implied that Mr Ashok has done something to cause Balram’s resentment or could Balram’s resentment be purely a matter of class conflict? ie is it possible that Balram’s resentment only tells us something about Balram, Mr Ashok only becomes its target because he happens to be Balram’s employer, rather than because of anything he has done himself?

    Other than that, ouch. Indistinguishable characters, a loss of interest (and I note several reviewers have found the early parts more interesting than the later, even among those who liked it far more than you did – though I suppose liking it at all is far more than you did).

    At this point, is there any book you have read which you consider suitable to be on a Booker shortlist, let alone a Booker winner?

  5. […] Asylum […]

  6. John Self said,

    …is it possible that Balram’s resentment only tells us something about Balram, Mr Ashok only becomes its target because he happens to be Balram’s employer, rather than because of anything he has done himself?

    Yes it is, Max; that is a perfectly reasonable interpretation. However then the burden simply passes to explaining how Balram became so embittered, and I don’t think that’s done well, or at all, either.

    As to the Bookerness of the longlist so far, probably not. In fact I suppose it depends how much I trust my own opinions and how much I take into account those of others. There’s no denying that Netherland, for example, has been as highly praised by critics as any novel of recent years, though I didn’t agree. And certainly Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture and Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (which I’ll be posting on in the next few days) are expertly done and quite satisfying, though neither delighted me as much as some other non-longlisted titles have this year.

    That’s all personal taste of course, though there does seem to be some degree of concurrence on the Man Booker Prize forum that it’s a weak year for the prize and also not an outstanding year for fiction generally – which, if correct, means the standard of the longlist may by definition have to include some ‘unworthy’ titles, though there are still several worthy ones that I think were overlooked.

    I would say the last really strong year for the Booker was 2004, where four shortlisted novels could reasonably have taken the prize: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (which did), Colm Tóibín’s The Master (which was my personal favourite), David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (which was not perfect but deserved great credit for its achievement) and Gerard Woodward’s I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (which I only read last year: review elsewhere on my blog. A superb book). 2005 was good too for more established names like Ishiguro, Barnes, Banville and Smith. Otherwise I’ve been disappointed by the prize in recent years.

  7. Fair point on the first para John.

    I think one has to trust one’s opinions really, it’s fair enough to revise them if someone makes a point one had missed or casts a book in a new light, but that’s revising not abandoning. If we don’t trust our own opinions, we’re left reading The Pope’s Rhinocerous and Harry Potter, and that’s just not an acceptable outcome.

  8. Mrinal Bose said,

    So, you damned it! It’s a much-touted novel at this moment, and has got some good Press even. A lit blogger has said about it, “It’s anything but half-baked”.

    I was thinking of buying the book. No longer. You save my time and money. Thanks, John.

  9. Out of interest, how did you find The Line of Beauty? I’ve read The Swimming Pool Library and The Folding Star, both of which were well written but both of which I thought possibly overplotted in some regards. The Toibin you note is I think the only one of his I’ve not read, perhaps I ought.

    Your review of the Woodward makes it out as tremendous stuff, that I’ll add to my longer term TBR pile.

  10. Paul said,

    I had heard only good things about this novel, so it’s refreshing to read your less admiring take on it. And I’m glad you mentioned Animal’s People – even though I haven’t read The Gathering I was dissapointed that Sinha’s work didn’t win because it entertained and involved me on a gut level like few novels I read last year did.

  11. Isabel said,

    Glad you are being so honest. This book will not be on my list for my book group nomination for 2009.

  12. Isabel said,

    Lots of drek is being published these days.

  13. John Self said,

    Well Mrinal and Isabel, you might like it yet, but you can probably extrapolate from my other reviews whether or not my opinion is likely to coincide with yours. Yes Paul, Animal’s People was far more entertaining than the blurb or most of the reviews gave it credit for.

    Out of interest, how did you find The Line of Beauty?

    I liked it Max, though I then reread it when the TV series was shown and enjoyed it much less. I preferred The Swimming-Pool Library and The Folding Star (particularly the latter) though I read both over a decade ago and have no idea how they would stand up now. Anyway all are better than The Spell, which just showed that Hollinghurst really can’t do comedy.

    The Master is superb, certainly my favourite of Tóibín’s novels (I’ve read them all except The South), and probably even better if, unlike me, you know anything at all about Henry James. Similarly the Woodward is brilliant, though I am now slightly concerned about reading the first and third in the trilogy for fear I have, er, “bigged up” the middle volume too much in my mind.

  14. Wow, John! I knew you didn’t like the book but this review gave it an exciting thrashing! Quite the contrast to my own review, but I admit you’ve made me question my response to the novel – which is always welcome!

  15. Hm, on checking I see I’ve read less Toibin than I thought, I’ve actually only read The South (which I enjoyed) and The Heather Blazing (which I thought excellent). I’ve not read The Blackwater Lightship or The Story of the Night (though I at least own the latter book).

    I have some Colm Toibin to catch up on it seems.

    I preferred The Folding Star to The Swimming-Pool Library also, I haven’t read The Spell and likely shan’t. We’ll see about Line of Beauty, I’m undecided on it.

    Trevor, it’s quite interesting to see real disagreement isn’t it? I liked My Revolutions, so it was interesting there to see John’s comments on it given he hated it. Sometimes that can be more valuable than reading a review by someone who agrees with one’s own take on a work.

  16. chartroose said,

    Snap! I won’t be reading this one either, then. Thanks, John!

  17. kimbofo said,

    Interesting review, as ever, John. I do find it funny though that people immediately decide they’re not going to read a book based on a bad review — if anything it makes me want to read it, if only to confirm that yes, it’s really as bad as the reviewer made clear!

    As to Toibin, I absolutely loved The Blackwater Lightship, which I read last year, but I never got around to trying The Master, purely because I didn’t think I knew enough about Henry James.

    My favourite Booker year was 1992 — I adored Sacred Hunger (one of my all-time favourite reads) but actually thought The Butcher Boy should have won it.

  18. It’s still on my TBR pile kimbofo, John’s scathing review notwithstanding. The main effects of the reviews for me is to make me really put it back a bit, until I associate it less with the Booker and can go in with perhaps less elevated assumptions.

    I only started following the Booker last year funnily enough, before then it simply passed me by which with hindsight is rather a shame.

  19. John Self said,

    Yes, The Blackwater Lightship is outstanding – and I see we discussed it before, kim!

    Trevor, my closing comments are a bit harsh, and I did reflect on whether to leave them or remove them in the day or two between writing this post and ‘publishing’ it. But it reflects how I felt about the book pretty accurately, so I left it. It’s possible that this is an example of how I tend to find my views on a book becoming stronger and stronger, once they’ve found a direction to go in. But there you are.

  20. Stewart said,

    A lit blogger has said about it, “It’s anything but half-baked”.

    Ah, that would be me. It was the first off the longlist I read and, having come off the back of a three month reading slump and, finding my stride again in July, some titles that I pushed myself through, I was ready to enjoy a book. The White Tiger did just that, and I’m thankful to it for that. Of the four Booker titles I’ve thus far read, it’s the only one I haven’t had to force myself to the end. Now, however, with the book almost two weeks behind me, I’m honestly struggling to remember much about it. Although I don’t give books marks out of five on my blog, I do elsewhere, and a few days ago I knocked a star off precisely for being unmemorable and because, my intial enthusiasm was perhaps too much. I still liked it, but not as much as I thought I did. That happens.

  21. Sam said,

    Wasn’t this the ‘book of the fair’ last year in London? Not that that matters particularly, I suppose. In fact, looking at the state of recent books of the fair, it’s possibly a bit of a poisoned chalice.

    Interesting that there are at least two epistolary novels on the long-list this year. Were you convinced by the reason for Balram’s writing to Weng Jiabao, John? Was a reason even given? I can see how it might’ve been a convenient framework on a techincal level for Adiga to use (writing to someone who didn’t know Balram would’ve (I’m guessing) allowed Adiga to impart various bits of information about Balram to the reader quite easily, avoiding what some critics have picked up on in Berger’s novel, where the letter-writers knew one another: why would they be telling them stuff they already know?)

    Toibin’s ‘The Master’ is wonderful, isn’t it! That scene in the library between Henry and that sculptor he’s got the hots for? So, so sad. (Didn’t enjoy ‘The Folding Star’ so much. I thought Hollinghurst was so much in love and in thrall to that whole decadent world (something he just about managed to keep in check in ‘The Line of Beauty’ ) that he pretty much spurned his reader and just carried on indulging himself. His splinter of ice had melted into a puddle of love.)

  22. John Self said,

    Well, books of the fair and suchlike are outside my knowledge, Sam: I take it it was sold for vast sums across the world? Well, I hope they weren’t expecting to make their money back. Perhaps they thought it would be the new White Teeth, which it isn’t in any sense. I mean White Teeth was far from perfect, particularly the disastrous last third, but it was ten times the book this is.

    Were you convinced by the reason for Balram’s writing to Weng Jiabao, John?

    Not for a moment, Sam, and in fact this is something I intended to raise in my review and forgot. It’s precisely a handy structure for Adiga and nothing more. And I also intended to raise examples of other one-sided epistolatory novels, of which there must be very many, but couldn’t think of any offhand. Now however Amanda Prantera’s Capri File springs to mind, a lovely little entertainment which I read long before I began blogging, so the link goes to an Amazon review.

    As for Hollinghurst, one of the things I disliked about The Line of Beauty was that I didn’t think he kept his distance from the character and subject quite intact. I know that authors write the books they would like to read, but here it felt at times like, if I can put it this way, intellectual-aesthetic masturbation.

    Really must read Tóibín’s Mothers and Sons which I see from my Blackwater Lightship review I have had for over a year now…

  23. Sam said,

    I think it did go for pretty sizeable sums, but I can’t be sure. Either way, I’m sure the publishers felt vindicated after the longlisting.

    Another one-sided epistolary novel might be Shriver’s ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’, which I’ve not read. I’ll look out for the Prantera, though I’m reading ‘Revolutionary Road’ at the moment – my first Yates! – and absolutely loving every single sentence of it, so the Prantera might have to wait while I get through Yates’s entire output.

  24. John Self said,

    Hm yes, I had a copy of Kevin thrust on me by a friend; it lies on the bottom of a pile somewhere and I have assiduously avoided catching its gaze ever since.

    Well Yates is one of a kind, and you’ve a rich if small seam of pleasure awaiting you. I’ve only written about one of his novels here, in the first days of this blog, but I long to revisit most of them, and absolutely must get around to Revolutionary Road again before cultural osmosis emanating from the film later this year insists I see Frank and April Wheeler as the gorgeous pouting Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet.

    One word of advice is to resist the temptation to gorge on them. Most of Yates’s novels have very similar elements – an alcoholic, artistically frustrated mother prime among them – and you may overdose. I rate Young Hearts Crying as up there with RR, and Cold Spring Harbor and The Easter Parade among his best work also. And you absolutely must read the stories too: two volumes (Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love) or Collected.

  25. Sam said,

    Thanks for the advice, John! I’ll do my best to ration the books and will make sure I don’t forget the short stories.

  26. jem said,

    I thought I quite liked this book when I read it, but I realise with distance that it is far from memorable. I can remember more about ‘Animal’s People’ which I read a year ago that this which I read two weeks ago!

    I agree with your point about the cast of characters being largely indistinguishable, but I wonder if that is because its a first person narrative by a character who is rather full of his own self importance? does your key character by definition dictate how he will present others?

    I didn’t have a problem with the denouement being revealved at the start. Sometime that can work quite well, but I did think there were some key scenes which could have had far greater strength and emotion but which were completely underplayed.

  27. bookcrazy said,

    I disagree with most of what has been said here about the book. I recently read it and though in the first 30 pages, I was about to drop it, my reasons were different.

    Like all Indian Fiction, the first thirty pages were senseless India bashing, with no touch to the reality or so overwhelmingly exaggerated that it has lost all touch. Also there are some weird facts, if for satire, it does not aceive that effect. Balram was Lord Krishna’s elder brother, not a sidekick.

    However, soon the plot takes over and all the India bashing becomes logical criticism, satire – it gels with the plot and the way one would expect that character to react.

    You are questioning Ashok did nothing majorly wrong to the guy. You are right. He did not gas him, or made him do slave labour. But his reaction is not to physical torture. It is the reaction of a hen in the rooster-coop. Even if the butcher feeds it well and keeps him for the end, the butcher is the butcher. It is one of the have-nots who can think. And thats a psychological horror.

    It say seem unbelievable that someone would not name a child, but that’s a fact with quite a few families down in the Indian villages. Because most of them never go to schools and they never need a name except something to call him by. By the way, the village of Laxmangarh is not in Bangalore. It’s set in the district of Gaya in the state of Bihar (as per the novel). There is also a long discription of the Ganges and how the whole of the Ganges belt (primarily UP and Bihar) is darkness.

    I do not think it is a perfect book nor do I know whether it deserved to be on the Booker long list (I take those awards with a pinch of salt). But I do know that the book is an honest and successful attempt at a satire about the Indian growth story told from the point of view of those who are not a part of that growth. The characters are representative and not individualised and therefore the descriptions are left intentionally vague.

  28. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comments, bookcrazy. You make some valuable and valid points in defence of The White Tiger. It still didn’t work for me, but it’s all a question of personal taste, isn’t it?

  29. bookcrazy said,

    Exactly John. That’s the fun in reading. One sentence, infinite meanings.

  30. Fin said,

    I loved this novel. It was skilfully made, perceptive, and memorable.

    I concur with bookcrazy’s point, John, that the satire on India is coherent–and with yourself when you conceded that your closing comments were “a bit harsh”.

    They were in fact a lot too harsh: to say it didn’t deserve longlisting is one thing; to go further and curse its publication is overkill of an oddly intensified sort. Why not fling it across the room and leave it at that?

    (Disclosure: I am a friend of the author’s.)

  31. John Self said,

    Fair enough Fin. All I can say is that I really really disliked this book. It seems to have polarised opinion on the Man Booker forum, with some having similar disdain for it, and others defending it stoutly. The book that happened with most last year was Anne Enright’s The Gathering – so that could be a good omen…

  32. John Self said,

    Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger has today been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2008. Just goes to show how much I know!

  33. Yesh Prabhu, Plainsboro, NJ said,

    After reading your review, it is quite clear to me that you did not read this book with care. You have written, “And so Balram sees himself: as an animal struggling for success in a pit which must be climbed out of, the village of Laxmangarh in Bangalore. (”I wonder if the Buddha walked through Laxmangarh – as some people say he did. My own feeling is that he ran through it – as fast as he could – and got to the other side – and never looked back!”)”. The author has stated that the village of Laxmangarh is near Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment, in North India. That is the reason he mentions Buddha here. And he also states that a branch of the river Ganges passes through the village. Obviously you do not know that Ganges doesn’t flow anywhere near Bangalore. Now I wonder how much of what you read in this book you have managed to grasp. I have no doubt that this is not only the funniest book I have ever read; it is also one of the very best written in the last ten years.

  34. Maya said,

    I don’t think I agree with you entirely. My instinct also was to condemn it after the first read… I expected a book that was being considered for the Booker to be much more complex. But if you ignore the Booker part and consider just the content of the book – Adiga has written clearly and wittily about something that is very much a reality in India and which is rarely ever discussed. With adequate publicity the book could do a lot for the way people think, and the simplicity of the narrative will buy it a wider audience.
    So shame on the Booker if Adiga wins, but it mightn’t be such a bad thing if all the Delhi high society ladies go scuttling off to get themselves a copy of the newly fashionable book and find that it changes completely, the way in which they looked that their Pappu or Ramu or Chunnu.

  35. John Self said,

    After reading your review, it is quite clear to me that you did not read this book with care.

    Perhaps not, Yesh. My posts on this site are intended to be the beginning of a conversation, rather than the end, and I certainly don’t claim to have any special insight or ability. My aim is simply to share my views as a general reader and I’ve found that on the official Booker Prize forum, opinion about this book seems starkly divided more than on any other longlisted title (except perhaps The Northern Clemency).

    Maya, I agree that Adiga raises an interesting subject which was new to me; however my objection to the book is that in my view it is not artfully executed (and simple narrative can be artful), and also that the subject is raised early in the book and nothing useful is added thereafter. As a social document the book may have value, but as a novel I don’t think it does.

  36. John Self said,

    I was emailed a link to this review of The White Tiger today, which I think is well worth a read and has much to say about the book that I would have said if I had the knowledge and ability to do so.

  37. Paul said,

    Interesting review that you linked to there John, enjoyed reading that.

  38. John Self said,

    Indeed, Paul, in fact it looks like a great resource in general. It has a piece on Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth which may interest you (I picked up the book last week on your recommendation).

  39. […] lizzysiddal And so to the Booker shortlist – eventually and a long way behind Booker stalwarts Asylum and Dovegreyreader, whose opinions are at opposite ends of the spectrum.  In which case, […]

  40. John Self said,

    Well, Aravind Adiga has won the Man Booker Prize 2008 for The White Tiger. I hope the thousands of people who read it as a result enjoy it more than I did!

  41. Andy said,

    Thanks for your coverage of the Booker this year John. I have thoroughly enjoyed your reviews, discussions and sufferings.
    I too think it will be a popular winner in the short term. It is an easy read but flawed.
    Mr Portillo said tonight “The novel undertakes the extraordinarily difficult task of gaining and holding the reader’s sympathy for a thoroughgoing villain”. Did Balram really maintain our sympathies when his actions would have such dire consequences to his family? Or should we gloss over that?

  42. Well it is all my fault The White Tiger won. It is the only book on the short list which I did not purchase mainly because I am just not in the mood for yet another Indian themed novel. I have yet to finish Kiran Desai’s winner.

    If and when I read this it will be in paperback at least.

    My thanks as well John for all your hard work.

  43. […] Asylum […]

  44. Personally I’m in the sad position of feeling no inclination to buy this book off the back of the judges’ recommendation. There are many reasons to trust John Self over Michael Portillo. Portillo has given gushing praise, not analysis*; we have no reason to even think he reads contemporary literary novels for real when not a Booker judge — and he was a Tory minister!

    *= Actually he’s quoted today as saying, “The novel is in many ways perfect. It is quite difficult to find any structural flaws with it.” Sorry? Who chooses a Booker winner on the basis of its lack of “structural flaws”?

  45. Susanne said,

    Another reason not to trust the judges:
    Check out the following article in the Independent

    http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/why-do-book-prizes-ignore-the-best-reads-960248.html

  46. John Self said,

    Yes Susanne, that article made me very dispirited. I’ll be generous and presume that Doughty’s comments were taken out of context – if not, she casts doubt on her capability to be a Booker judge, whose role after all is not to find the most readable book of the year, or even the judges’ favourite book of the year, but (according to the rules of the prize) what the judges feel is the best book of the year. Which I don’t think is quite the same thing.

    Thanks Jonathan. I shall sleep easy tonight knowing I rank higher than Michael Portillo!

  47. Lee Monks said,

    As soon as the panel was announced, many months ago, I relinquished any hope of a decent recipient. We’re now surely talking about a mere jamboree, an occasion of little more renown than the Richard and Judy gongfest. The outrage I’ve spent an hour sifting through is harsh even compared to the furore whipped up two years ago. The egregious oozemeister Portillo seems to be a bit of a nadir magnet. Give the chair to John Self next year! Maybe we should draw up a ‘fantasy panel’ to ease the rancour? I’ll put Will Self up there, John Crace, Donna Tartt and Anthony Lane. I feel slightly better already.

  48. gavin said,

    This year’s Booker was flawed the moment Portillo was announced as Chairman. I’m not making a silly political point on that, he just doesn’t strike me as someone with the literary background to know what a great novel is. This hunch was confirmed when The Truth Commissioner wasn’t even longlisted. I’ll scan the paperback of The White Tiger, but I get the feeling I won’t really like it. I wonder was Sebastian Barry’s exquisite novel overlooked because another Irish winner would make the focus of the prize seem too narrow?

  49. John Self said,

    Give the chair to John Self next year!

    What, and then be the recipient of moans instead of being able to have a good moan myself? No thanks chum! Truly though, I don’t envy the judges their task, and they must be so punch-drunk with prose (it works out that they have to read a book every day-and-a-half) that it’s inevitable some good stuff will be overlooked – and also perhaps that more simplistic books will appeal. But it can be done, and 2004 is a highlight of recent years in my view for the quality of the shortlist alone. The chair then was a politician too – Chris Smith.

    Gavin, I don’t think you will like The White Tiger. To make myself feel better about Park’s omission, I’m going to read one of his other books shortly – Swallowing the Sun, which some have said is even better than The Truth Commissioner.

  50. Lee Monks said,

    No, I’m sure it’s a formiddable task to say the least. But it HAS been done exceedingly well before now. I loved the DBC Pierre at the time and was flabbergasted when it won (it stands up less well now). Whatever the merits of the book in the long run, it was fresh and seemed to try something a little different, and contained luminous, unpredictable, startling writing for the most part.

    Chris Smith perhaps veers towards our political bent a wee bit more than Portillo, John. But I take the point. Although I still say writers are best equipped to judge, just as I would scarcely trust a philosopher picking out goal of the month, regrdless of his football acumen. Would you trust a politician that loves food and frequents all the best restaurants in the world or Gordon Ramsey as to what food rocks?

  51. Linda Grant said,

    Here’s how it looks from the other side of the fence:

    For being shortlisted you get: increased sales, bonuses in your contract for being shortlisted, £2500 from Man Booker, foreign rights sales

    For winning you get all the above plus being pilloried in the press and blogosphere with angry commentators telling you that it was a travesty that you won.

    I’d take the second category, but always aware that with winning, there is that price.

    Having spent two days with Aravind and others on the shortlist, I am delighted for him, and know that he has the strength to withstand the maelstrom, having been attacked already for criticising the Indian middle classes and standing up for India’s poor.

    Is it the best book? I challenge all those who criticise the judges to arrive at a consensus about what the best book is.

  52. Lee Monks said,

    I am delighted for Aravind as well. I won Player Of The Season one time and it was a blast (though not to the tune of 50k, admittedly). But I question the whole process, the choosing of judges, the point of it all. A few years ago it seemed to be a serious accolade for a genuinely exceptional piece of work, and I would always try to fit the shortlist in beforehand. After the last two or three ceremonies, and the mediocrity they’ve tended to push as opposed what a large consensus of avid readers consider far better works, I haven’t felt the urge, and my decision seems vindicated. And I think that is predominantly down to the choice of judges.

  53. John Self said,

    Ah Linda, you shame us with your goddamn reasonableness. As a thank you I have added that (rather nice, as you say) US cover to my review of The Clothes on their Backs.

    You mention that Adiga has been “attacked already for criticising the Indian middle classes and standing up for India’s poor,” and others have made similar points. But to me this is a little like the various church representatives a few years ago who were criticising The Da Vinci Code because it misrepresented Christianity. That’s irrelevant, I wanted to say; it’s objectionable because it’s badly written!

    As to naysayers like me coming up with a consensus on the best book, no, you’re right, we probably couldn’t. But I reckon we could – and have, if you look at the Booker Prize forum – come up with a consensus on several better books. (Though as I understand it, the judges last night didn’t have consensus either.)

  54. KevinfromCanada said,

    I’ve reread your review of The White Tiger, John, and must say that I think you analyzed the book perfectly. I also do think Portillo’s comment that the judges opted for a “gritty” book is telling — there is no doubt that this book is gritty.

    While I can understand why some people like it — and certainly recognize the talent of the author — that does not overcome my disappointment with this book. Critiquing my own critique, I would have to say that I simply expect more from an excellent book than this book delivered. Perhaps what is most frustrating (and I think your review illustrates this) is that this book had the potential to be so much more. Then again (and I will try to approach Linda Grant’s generosity) maybe that says more about me than it does about the book. I do wonder if making the judges read so many books, some of them (Hensher for example) quite dense, leaves them in a frame of mind for simplicity rather than complexity — which would certainly put them at odds with what I would look for.

    And I agree that concensus is impossible when judging books. Which is why I do feel quite comfortable saying this was not a good choice — I figure if you do read the books, you are entitled to an opinion. In the final analysis, it is only an opinion.

  55. In other prize news, John, the National Book Award finalists have been named. You can see my site or their site for the books. Kevin is planning on getting through them all, and I’m interested but busy so we’ll see.

  56. John Self said,

    Thanks Trevor. I’ve read one of them and don’t really plan to tackle the others, though will keep an eye on the winner (last year, however, I didn’t get far into Tree of Smoke before giving up).

    Kevin, Portillo’s literary v gritty comment confused me, as I don’t see why the two should be mutually exclusive. A reasonable recollection of Booker history would show that James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late won in 1994, and would surely qualify for both epithets.

    Incidentally, I see that last year I posted my review of the winning book on 16 August, and it was crowned winner on 16 October. This year I reviewed the winning book on 14 August, and it won on 14 October. So keep an eye on next year’s prize dates!

  57. Paul said,

    I have a feeling they went for the impulse to associate themselves with a novel that screams its own topical importance because of the subject matter, allowing of course for how skilled the author is at bringing literary skill to alleviate the journalistic and polemical nature of the narrative, and thereby anouncing the relevancy of the award as not only literary arbiter, but as a lighthouse for social awareness.

  58. Stewart said,

    Who chooses a Booker winner on the basis of its lack of “structural flaws”?

    The inclusion of a spine may be just what tipped it for P.H. Newby’s Something To Answer For in the inaugural Booker, thus refusing B.S Johnson’s The Unfortunates the recognition it deserves.

    I see that last year I posted my review of the winning book on 16 August, and it was crowned winner on 16 October. This year I reviewed the winning book on 14 August, and it won on 14 October. So keep an eye on next year’s prize dates!

    It’s as good a system as any, I suppose. Give how prescient your Chinua Achebe review was in unwittingly predicting last year’s Nobel. Didn’t remember seeing a mention of Le Clézio tucked into any of your recent reviews. So perhaps that system is flawed. I’ll stick to your Booker one.

  59. Nick said,

    I must say I’ve read several of the Booker winners and been disappointed by all of them. I do wonder how on earth they make their selection. I suspect political and careerist factors play a large part. After reading your review of The White Tiger, I shall rely on your discerning gaze and steer well clear of that one.

  60. samjordison said,

    “There are many reasons to trust John Self over Michael Portillo.”

    How very true!

    That quote from Portillo about structural flaws is slightyl worrying isn’t it? I actually enjoyed this book, but the structural problems are pretty glaring IMO…

    So you’re very disappointed John?

    Will keep an eye on the dates of your blogs when laying down my booker fiver next year… (Forgot to do it this time – not that I’d have won…)

  61. John Self said,

    Yes I am (disappointed) Sam, though to their credit, the judges forewarned me of inevitable disappointment right from the longlist on.

    Meanwhile, from this article in today’s Guardian, I see that the judges were torn between The White Tiger and The Secret Scripture. Louise Doughty also explains that remarkably short – 40 minute – longlist-choosing session.

  62. I find this quote interesting:

    One such was Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which scraped its way on to the longlist despite our shared reservations because of its evocative portrayal of a post-9/11 New York.

    Doesn’t an evocative portrayal sound like a good thing? Were their reservations because it described New York? Post-9/11? I don’t understand. Can anyone enlighten me?

  63. Does she mean that it made its way “because of its evocative portrayal” “despite our shared reservations”?

    After some help from my wife, I might understand what she meant, though she apparently doesn’t know how to construct a sentence. That’s englightening.

  64. Or maybe a poor typist like me (“englightening”?!) put this article together.

  65. John Self said,

    Yes, it’s a muddy sentence, Trevor, but my interpretation was the same as your wife’s.

  66. KevinfromCanada said,

    I interpret it that way too, but that isn’t the way it is written. Certainly, a couple of commas would have helped.

  67. Lee Monks said,

    Alex Clark, on the Guardian website, has revealed her Barry advocacy, yet suggests that she was quite happy to compromise. What is the point of spending months reading largely forgettable fodder if it ends in compromise? Share the thing, at least…and the Louise Doughty comments re: Netherland I found appalling and about as revealing as you need.

  68. John Self said,

    Thanks Lee. Here is the link for anyone else interested.

    (As to sharing, since it last happened in 1992, with Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth, such split decisions have been explicitly outlawed by the rules of the Prize. Louise Doughty in her piece does say that they asked Ion Trewin anyway, and he said no.)

  69. Never read blogs. We are a sub-standard panel of self-serving nitwits who have chosen a dud novel from a duff shortlist from a poor longlist in a dying medium, say the bloggers, whose convictions are so strong that they find it unnecessary to sign their contributions with their real names.

    Nice to know we are appreciated. :)

    It’s unfair to blame the judges for having opinions — but fair, I think, to criticise them for failing to justify their opinions in an illuminating way. They blow their own trumpets, slag off Netherland and tell us all about the terribly interesting life of a Booker judge — but where do I go if I want to know why I should read The White Tiger?

  70. KevinfromCanada said,

    While I thought Alex’s Guardian piece was interesting and certainly worthwhile, I did find the comment that Jonathan highlights very interesting. Certainly, if she is not interested in what other people think about books, avoiding blogs would be a good idea. Like Ms Doughty, she seems to have confused comments about books with comments about her and her fellow judges — in my case, the negative comments were about the books and not about the people who chose them, even if I did question their taste and judgment. I would also remind her that my books did not come free in Jiffy bags, they were ordered and paid for.

    I also think Lee is a little off base, since Alex definitely says she did not compromise. From the first appearance of the longlist, it was obvious that the judges would have to make a choice. They did. My guess is that virtually every Giller panel has had to do that — certainly, no novel stood out this year as obvious — and those of us who watch and comment on the process have to accept that in the final analysis they have to make a choice.

    My full name is Kevin Peterson. I live in Calgary, Alberta. I was a newspaper reporter, editor and publisher and am now retired and I read a lot of books. In no way am I trying to hide my opinions behind a nom-de-web. I don’t slag judges, I don’t like them to slag me.

  71. KevinfromCanada said,

    Whoops, got my panels mixed up. It should say Booker not Giller in my previous post. Although both panels face the same need to finally make a choice.

  72. Lee Monks said,

    Yes, I was aware of the request to share, and was fairly confident I knew that such an outcome was out of the question, but if two of the six are fairly adamant about Sebastian Barry (and how many others? We may never know) then it begs the question: why not re-write the rules? I think in this case Portillo had his way; nothing wrong with a strong chair, but I get the impression that he pushed for his choice from the off and that the rest of the judges were swimming against the tide if they failed to concur. If true, pointless having a panel. You have to make a choice, ultimately, but how democratically was it made?

    Mind you, it was a shocking panel, and I refer you to the comments I made previously…

  73. I was unimpressed by Alex’s piece, and particularly (perhaps unsurprisingly) by the piece about bloggers.

    Whether they use real names or not (I do as it happens), bloggers tend to use consistent names. John Self is John Self consistently, Kevinfromcanada remains Kevinfromcanada over a range of different blogs, accountability really isn’t that hard.

    I see Kevin upthread gives his real details, but does that make him any more accountable than he was before? He’s already accountable, as he uses a consistent handle across the blogosphere. Given it’s unlikely Alex wishes to look him up in person, what more is required?

    If I wish to challenge something John has said, I can come here and do so. Should he or someone else wish to challenge something I’ve said, they can do so at my blog or at any of the blogs I regularly read and post to. The unaccountability of people on the internet is sometimes I think exaggerated, driveby comments are always around but the people who tend to post a lot tend to be a much smaller group and after a while I think one does get to recognise them.

    On a more positive, and more literary note, I have purchased Q & A, Surfaces and An Obedient Father – all works of contemporary Indian literature that were recommended in the Guardian blogs by bloggers who were in varying ways disappointed with this year’s result and who wanted to bring attention to the range of interesting contemporary Indian fiction in English that’s available. That for me is a real gain, and indeed a sort of success for the booker since without the debate it generated I likely wouldn’t have received those recommendations.

  74. KevinfromCanada said,

    I agree completely with Max’s point about bloggers and do think the Alex comment was not appropriate. While our number may be small, a number of us do make an attempt to read as many of these books as possible and offer our thoughts — and in my judgment, as someone who regularly drops in on a number of blogs, I find both the reviews there and the commentary those reviews produce to be much more useful than one-off reviews in the conventional press (although I certainly also appreciate those reviews). If I was a judge, I would welcome the attention and commentary. What point is there in having a longlist and shortlist if people do not pay some attention to it? If Ms Clark or any other judge disagrees with my opinions, she/he is welcome to tell me off on this site. I salute Linda Grant for being willing to engage in that commentary (while acknowledging that other authors might find it inappropriate). Certainly, her generous comments on this site which (gently) chided those of us who found The White Tiger wanting gave me pause for thought. I’d say this year’s judging panel was just a little bit too touchy about people who disagreed with their opinion.

    I will also disagree with Lee — I think these panels do have to produce a single winner and that split prizes are not appropriate. Although the journalist in me has to say that those who liked The Secret Scripture certainly have managed to make that known. I do appreciate Ms Clark’s Guardian piece for explaining the longlist meeting — the chair obviously has to have some structure to that meeting and I don’t think it harms the process to tell us what that was.

    On the Indian novel front, Max, check out The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan. It is a multi-generational novel that explores the tensions and decline of the Brahmin class as India moves into the modern world. It is a semi-memoir in that the author (who wrote the novel while living in Canada, she now lives in the U.S.) is part of the diaspora that that change produced. It is definitely not “gritty” but for me explores in much greater depth and subtlety a number of the themes that I liked, but did not think were developed, in The White Tiger. It is now available in the UK.

  75. Linda Grant said,

    Alex Clark’s reference to anonymous bloggers was in the context of an anonymous contributor to the Guardian blog who accused the judges of not giving the prize to me because they were anti-semitic. The comment was removed. I have contacted Alex to reassure her that this view is not shared by me.

  76. Ouch, how nasty. Thanks Linda, what a hateful comment from that poster and what a useful clarification on your part. That does put Alex’s remarks rather in perspective and explains why she might be feeling a tad jaundiced.

  77. KevinfromCanada said,

    Once again, I must thank Linda Grant for useful information. It certainly provides more than ample justification for Alex’s comment and the clarification is much appreciated. Having tweaked the judges for being too touchy, I will now apply that same criticism to myself. Grow a thicker skin, Kevin.

    Since I am stuck across the Atlantic and since Ms Clark did reference Ms Grant’s probable dress at the dinner, I am wondering if it would be within the bounds of propriety to ask what she did wear? I know that’s not literary, but since a judge was speculating about it, it has piqued my curiosity.

  78. Linda Grant said,

    Ossie Clark, dahling.

    You will find a great deal about it on my little fashion blog, The Thoughtful Dresser

  79. KevinfromCanada said,

    Thank you for the response and the blog, which I didn’t know about. Both my wife and I have added it to our favorites, although she says you can stop writing about men’s fashion because it is a waste of time. I will admit this is the first time I have ever asked an author, male or female, where she/he got their clothes — thinking back on it, Robertson Davies would probably be the only one that I regret not asking (and given who he was, I’d expect it was somewhere on Jermyn Street).

    I love the U.S. cover for your book. Hope it sells well there.

  80. I think you can probably find an anonymous commenter on the Guardian blogs accusing anyone of anything.

  81. Lee Monks said,

    Idiots will frequent every blog if it runs on long enough. My favourite blog story involves me and another guy from Canada wittering on about David Lynch only to be double-team ‘punked’ by a pair of neanderthals somewhere in the US. We left the ‘discussion’ when it had become a block capital swearathon involving threats of decapitation etc. You need to self-edit when you have a trawl or it can be tiresome; block out the goons and everything’s fine. They will say the worst thing they can imagine at some point just to rattle cages, be it thoughts on a headless David Lynch, rubbish about anti-semitism…

    Perhaps sharing dilutes the magnitude of the accolade, I can see that. But I would like to know the opinion of the remainder of the panel as to their actual favourite, as opposed to the potential choice of coerced compromise, that is all.

  82. John Self said,

    There seems to be some confusion over what the judges mean by saying that the result was not a compromise. Michael Portillo clarifies on his last blog entry as chairman:

    The judges made it through without “blood on the floor” (to the media’s disappointment) but we were not unanimous, except in the sense that everyone accepted the choice once made. I am entirely happy with our decision, but Barry is entitled to be disappointed.

    My understanding from reading around other judges’ comments is that it must have been a 3-2 vote for Adiga v Barry. Not a compromise, but not an overwhelming mandate for Adiga either. Of course we should not expect five people thrown together randomly to agree on the best book of six – or the best book of 113. That, presumably, is why there are an odd number of judges.

    (Portillo also comments on the denouement of Barry’s novel, which has been much discussed – mostly unfavourably – in the blogosphere. It seems that this, in the end, might have contributed to Barry’s narrow failure to take the prize.)

  83. Stewart said,

    I think it interesting to note too that The White Tiger did not even make it to the longlist of the Guardian First Book Award (Toltz did).

  84. KevinfromCanada said,

    Stewart’s post raises an interesting point. In these competitions, the most important thing for a book is to have an advocate (Alex talks about that in her Guardian column) going in to the process. If you don’t, you are up the creek. Adiga obviously had a very strong advocate on the Booker jury (and again Clark’s description of the process — where a member argued for each book — is useful) and does not have one on the Guardian First Book jury. What I personally find interesting about this is the notion that one personality on a judging panel could have so much influence on the final outcome.

  85. Lee Monks said,

    Exactly, Kevin. This was not a vote in the commons with a chief whip rounding up the troops with a more than pointed word in each ear.

  86. Sam said,

    There’s a review of Adiga’s book in the latest issue of LRB. It’s a cool evisceration of a review and it pretty much confirmed that I wouldn’t enjoy the novel were I to buy it. I think that for me the success of first person narratives lie chiefly in the believability of the voice. It seems that this novel fails on that score.

    ‘This is a posh English-educated voice trying to talk dirty, without being able to pull it off. This is not Salinger speaking as Holden Caulfield, or Joyce speaking as Molly Bloom. It is certainly not Ralph Ellison or James Baldwin, whom Adiga has claimed as his models in speaking for the underdog. What we are dealing with is someone with no sense of the texture of Indian vernaculars, yet claiming to have produced a realistic text.’

    Subrahmanyam goes on to give many examples in support of his claim and then, backhandedly, adds:

    ‘Adiga gets the tone right only when he writes of the world of the bourgeois.’

    He does acknowledge the difficulty and probelms of rendering – believably, credibly – in English the non-English-speaking Indian narrator, but, unfortunately, he can’t or doesn’t give a solution. There’s also a sly dig at Jhumpa Lahiri which, despite my admiration for her work, I do kind-of sort-of share.

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n21/subr01_.html

  87. John Self said,

    Nice spot, Sam, I was reading that the other day and was going to include the same extract here that you did.

  88. Paul said,

    Excellent review from the LRB. I was e-mail discussing this very review of the novel with a British-Indian friend of mine the last couple of days. She had said similar things about the work when I asked her a while back asking for a quick thought on the book, whether or not to give it a go. The final line of the review is pretty devastating, and points to a major blind spot in the assessments of the judges of the Booker Prize:

    “This book adds another brick to the patronising edifice it wants to tear down.”

  89. Paul said,

    By the way John, Zadie Smith has written an excellent essay-review of ‘Netherland’ and Tom McCarthy’s ‘Remainder’ in the NYRB

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22083

    This is one that’s worth printing out, making a cup of tea, making yourself comfortable on the sofa, and reading for enjoyment and stimulation. What a pleasent way to spend Sunday afternoon eh.

  90. Sam said,

    Thanks, Paul – that’s ace! I’m really looking forward to reading that later this evening.

  91. KevinfromCanada said,

    John: This is a digression on this thread, but one that I have been thinking about. I notice that the site does not have a Sillitoe review (reminded by some literary review I’ve read recently). Since your post portrait looks young enough to say you weren’t a contempoary, I’m wondering if you have explored the Angry Young Men of the past or were willing to look at them now. If not Sillitoe, perhaps one of the others — certainly the dramatists from the era have been enjoying a bit of revival. I grew up with them but haven’t read them for decades, remember little now and am wondering if a revisit is worthwhile. I would be interested in your thoughts. The Angry genre seems to be enjoying a bit of a comeback (that’s why I posted this here) — a look back might be worthwhile, especially if it came from fresh, younger eyes (that would be you).

  92. Paul said,

    It’s a great read Sam, let us know if you enjoyed it. I read Remainder a couple of months ago and it is a very original work. Good, original novels require good, attuned readers. Zadie is not only a good reader, she is an interesting critic with vision too. Haven’t enjoyed a book review / essay so much in ages.

  93. John Self said,

    Kevin, funny you should mention Sillitoe as I have a friend who was a big fan of his, reading most of his books (he lived in Nottingham at the time, probably soon to be rebranded ‘Sillitoe Country’ if D.H. Lawrence ever falls out of favour). However I don’t think I’ve finished any of his books, having tried just his two most famous, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I think he has a new novel out, as he’s been in the press here of late. As for other ‘Angrys’, I read Osborne’s Look Back in Anger years ago but have never seen it performed – and reading a play off the page never does much for me. I would certainly like to have another look at Sillitoe or others – is there a particular book of his (or other authors you had in mind) that you would recommend?

    Paul and Sam, I read Remainder a couple of years ago on the recommendation of Scott Pack. I had mixed feelings about it, but I loved the ending and increasingly think that I ought to revisit it in light of the ending – and indeed to try his second novel Men in Space.

  94. On Sillitoe, I wrote up Saturday Night and Sunday Morning here http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/category/alan-sillitoe/, I’ve not yet read The White Tiger but beyond a certain anger at social injustice I’m not sure I’d put them in the same genre.

    To be honest, I see SN&SM more as a work of social realism than angry young manism, but the gap between those two I admit is not huge.

  95. KevinfromCanada said,

    Thanks for the link Max and for the excellent review. It has confirmed my interest in revisiting Sillitoe. It is also so good that I think I will start with Loneliness and, if I like it, move on to Saturday Night. Since it has been decades since I read both, that doesn’t seem like a chore. I do remember Sillitoe as being someone that one can read relatively quickly, with a strong narrative voice to carry you along, even if the plots are gloomy/angry.

    The White Tiger started me thinking about this, not because I think the books are terribly similar, but because I was wondering how “anger” as a theme held up over time. Since I am of the same generation as the characters of Sillitoe’s early work, I liked it when it was fresh — and was wondering how well it has aged. From Max’s review of Saturday Night, it would seem to have aged well for him, at least. And the review would seem to indicate that the novel has a lot more going for it than just anger. (The reception for Rawi Hage’s new book, Cockroach, here in Canada has added to my interest. I don’t like the book at all — and didn’t The White Tiger either — because it only seems to be about anger. I have to admit a lot of reviewers, juries and readers don’t seem to share my critical judgement.)

    It has been a long time since I saw a production of Look Back in Anger (I too am much better at watching drama than I am at reading it) but I do remember it as a very good piece of work. I did see a revival of Epitaph for George Dillon a couple of years ago on the West End — I must admit my conclusion was that Osborne wasn’t much of a playwright until he got angry. Then again, he may have just been in the process of discovering his real voice.

  96. I think if it just had anger it wouldn’t have much interest, indeed like you I don’t think anger alone can carry a work (it certainly didn’t for John and White Tiger).

    Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a quick and entertaining read, it’s not in my view just an angry young man novel and for me it was far from a chore. I think it’s certainly worth a visit and would be interested to hear your views on Loneliness once you read that as that will likely be my next Sillitoe also.

    Being angry may be good reason to write a given work, it may influence what that work says, but ultimately on its own anger merely produces a rant – there must be (at the risk of sounding pretentious) truth and art also.

  97. KevinfromCanada said,

    I agree completely. Anger — or at least a sense of unfair injustice — can be an excellent starting point but it is only that. Sinclair Lewis, Saul Bellow, Rohinton Mistry and a host of others have shown that most effectively. I can’t help but wonder if some of those who like The White Tiger haven’t been paying much attention to the real world. The positive reactions seem excited that it shows there is a downside to India’s growth — you don’t have to be a very devoted newspaper or newsmagazine reader (heck, watching the BBC or CNN would be enough) to know that. For me that is a good startiing point — the reason I don’t think the novel succeeded is that it never left that starting line. Which is why I started wondering if my positive memories of Sillitoe were simply a reflection of my own young politics or an indication that his novels were good books. Your review will set me off in a positive frame of mind because it does show that Sillitoe looked beyond the obvious to find a deeper meaning (whoops, now I’m getting pretentious(.

  98. Novels dealing with contemporary India are still unfamiliar to many, me included admittedly. I just wrote up Q & A, which I’m afraid I didn’t find much more successful than John found White Tiger (though I didn’t get so far as questioning why it was published).

    I still intend to read White Tiger, and I still hope to enjoy it, however I’m not yet persuaded it should have been Booker longlisted (let alone have won) as that creates expectations that really I’d rather avoid. I didn’t really take to Q & A, had it been a booker nominee that fact alone would probably have made me a lot more hostile.

    Child 44 suggests itself to me in that context too, an ok thriller that by elevation to Bookerdom became subject to a level of criticism it was perhaps never intended for. That said, my impression is that Adiga is a serious novelist, in which case he merits serious criticism, which is what he’s received here.

  99. The above post is me, I forgot to log out of my WordPress account before pressing submit.

  100. KevinfromCanada said,

    I’d add Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown and M. g. Vassanji’s The Assassin’s Song as two other novels that tried to look at at least aspects of contemporary India and did not succeed, albeit for different reasons than The White Tiger and apparently Q and A (which I haven’t read). I’ll admit I found Rushdie and Vassanji’s failure more interesting than Adiga’s, since I think they set the bar quite a bit higher. Maybe contemporary India is just too complex (or simply too big) to allow for treatment in a novel until it has had time to mature a bit. Certainly Rushdie, Mistry and Roy all succeeded in creating wonderful books after some real time had passed.

    I did discover in some trolling for this post that Vassanji has a new book out this week, non-fiction, called A Place Within: Rediscovering India. He was born in Kenya, so he is both two generations and two diasporas removed — the publisher’s note I found conveys his anxiousness about his search. I don’t think I’ll buy it until I have seen a review or two but my antenna are up.

  101. John Self said,

    What about Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games? I can’t pretend I’ve ever seriously considered reading it – 960 pages! Are you mad! – but a quick skim of reviews suggests that it’s pretty wide-ranging, and includes elements of modern India such as gangsterism which are rarely seen in fiction.

  102. KevinfromCanada said,

    We do own Sacred Games. My wife bought it because she thought she might like it, but has never tried it. I might give it a go, but have too many in the to-read pile to say when.

  103. I also own Sacred Games, but plan to read first Love and Longing in Bombay which is earlier, has at least one overlapping character and more importantly is only 257 pages long.

    Also on my personal TBR pile is Surface, by Siddhartha Deb and An Obedient Father, by Akhil Sharma, both of which look excellent.

    I’d note that Ian McDonald’s SF epic River of Gods also spends a fair bit of time looking at gangsterism, quite effectively I thought.

    So the works are out there, the Deb and Sharma (and Q & A) were all suggested to me as alternative contemporary Indian authors worth looking at as well as (or in place of) Adiga.

  104. There’s a stinging review of The White Tiger in the latest LRB

  105. John Self said,

    Thanks Jonathan. Sam mentioned this last week. Great minds think alike! ;)

  106. Sam said,

    Or fools seldom differ.

  107. Oh dear. I scrolled up to check — but not far enough…

  108. Rumjhum Biswas said,

    I just read your review and couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately I had already bought and read the book, which resulted in my own review/caricature of it “Dear Mr. Aravind Adiga, I am So Sorry” in my blog. You are one of those rare people who have judged this book on the basis on which books should be judged. Most seem to be caught up in its cheap sensationalism.

  109. John Self said,

    Thanks Rumjhum. You forgot to include a link to your blog – so here it is!

  110. Rumjhum Biswas said,

    Thank you John.

  111. Linda Grant said,

    The son of a close friend of mine was very, very badly injured in the Mumbai bombings. Aravind was an absolute star and went out of his way to help the family. I’m immensely grateful for the help he offered, and I think that his book deserves a second reading, now we know what tensions lie underneath that society.

  112. Sam said,

    Seeing as I seemed to have quite a bit to say above, a quick, capsule review from me now I’ve read the book. I think I’ve only got about four points to make.

    Voice: First-person narratives hinge on the credibility of the voice. As many others have said, Balram’s voice hasn’t been thought through deeply enough. He uses phrases like ‘cannonades of laughter’, ‘sidekick’ and ‘quite the contrary’, none of which sound consistent with each other or with the voice of a boy from an Indian village who left school before his teens to go and work in a tea-shop. He also, incredibly, knows his Churchill (‘Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many.’) Adiga could argue that the story is told from the perspective of Balram once he has climbed the social ladder. I’d buy that, but a more accomplished novelist would have used some narrative sleight of hand to accommodate this.

    Character: Part of the reason why Balram’s voice isn’t strong enough might be because Adiga doesn’t spend enough time really seeing the world through Balram’s eyes. Consider the following passage (Balram’s father is seriously ill, spitting blood, and Balram is desperate to get him to a hospital): ‘The glass in most of the windows was broken; a cat was staring out at us from one cracked window. A sign on the gate said: Lohia Universal Free Hospital. Proudly inaugurated by the Great Socialist. A holy proof that he keeps his promises.’ It isn’t really credible that Balram, with a dying father in his arms, would stop to notice what is written on a sign. Here, as at many other points, Adiga pushes aside his narrator, because clearly making some point about the political machinations in rural India is more important than Balram’s reality, what he might be seeing and feeling. This is a shame, because elsewhere in the book, for example when we see Balram’s private (and poignant) attempts to say ‘pizza’ and ‘mall’ instead of ‘pijja’ and ‘mowl’, Adiga shows that he can move away from point-making and feel things as Balram might.

    Place: The part of the book set in Delhi is done well – the new wealth, the slums – all this convinces. However, Balram’s reaction to all this doesn’t resonate as well as it should because the earlier stuff in the village – or ‘Darkness’ as Adiga portentously has it – is so generic. Laxmangarh – Balram’s ancestral home – is described as a place with a black fort on a hill, a few buffaloes, and… that’s about it. This isn’t really vivid enough. And this isn’t a failure of research, as many have it, or a question of authenticity (which is just inverted snobbery), but a failure of imagination. Adiga hasn’t imagined life into his village.

    The framework: The letter to Jiabao is gimmicky, but it is also extraordinarily accommodating. Balram can impart to the reader whatever he likes – about his own life, about the mores of India – without the usual reader complaint that surely the recipient would already know some of this?

    The transformation: This needed to be more gradual. If we’re to believe in the transformation then Adiga needs to do the work, the narrative stealth, to lead up to the murder in a forceful, inevitable, way – we need momentum, in other words. A stronger sense of place in the village and more effort spent seeing the world through Balram’s eyes would’ve helped this (see above).

    The ending: Credit to Adiga that, once Balram had become a version of those that he once despised, he doesn’t give us some pat moral point about money and power and corruption. If anything, he seems to say the opposite, that we’re doomed from the start: ‘I have woken up, and the rest of you are sleeping, and that is the only difference between us.’

    Okay, so six points. Sorry for typos etc….

    Sam

  113. John Self said,

    Thanks Sam. I agree in particular about the transformation, which for me didn’t work at all, and which must be related to the failure to make Balram ‘live’ as anything other than a cipher for Adiga’s purposes.

    What bugged me in particular was the notion, put about by much of the media, that the only criticisms being made of The White Tiger were Indian commentators who were angry at Adiga for, as it were, blowing the lid on the gaff. To me, a novel’s qualities are nothing to do with its subject matter per se, but to do with how its subject matter is presented, ie the style, the art of the fiction itself. Similarly, to read the papers a few years ago, one would have thought that the only grounds for criticising The Da Vinci Code were for its representation of the Catholic church.

    Anyway, The White Tiger is everywhere now it’s out in paperback, and no doubt many people will enjoy it who wouldn’t have liked the last few Booker winners. But the best novel of the year? Well, we’ve already been there.

  114. Sam said,

    I have to say the media criticism you cite totally passed me by. If anything, I was more annoyed with the Indian commentators (er, there may have been one somewhere above) who seemed to take any criticism of the book as a slight against India itself. Having said that, it’s really not a bad first novel. It just needed a couple more drafts before it did everything Adiga wanted it to you, as well as it needed to be done.

    Re the Booker: yeah, I know, when we had books published last year that displayed more artistry, ideas, and sheer literary skill (The Impostor, Keiron Smith, Boy and Netherland to name just three that didn’t make the shortlist) then I can see the award to Adiga might seem unjust. But that’s no reason in itself to dislike the book, which is why I avoided mentioning the prize in my comments above. It’s not the book’s fault, after all. It’s just what happens when you choose a panel whose tastes lie towards the middlebrow end of the literary spectrum. But if anyone is at fault it’s the people who chose the panel, because you can’t blame the judges for what they are attracted to, no more than you can blame flies around shit.

  115. Lee Monks said,

    Quite right. The panel was an abomination, and there’s no getting around the fact. That’s done and dusted, but it still rankles that genuinely brilliant work was completely overlooked because of ineptitude. Easy way to solve all that, of course: hire a literary panel (yes, including the likes of Mr John Self) and let them get on with it. Excellent results far more likely. Would you hire The Chuckle Brothers, Boris Johnson, Phil Tufnell and Alistair Campbell to pick any of the national sporting squads? No, you’d pick experts, knowing that you may well disagree with their ultimate choice, but that you trust their acumen. The sheer fact (not even nearly having read all eligible books, it is fairly obvious to state) that Damon Galgut and Joseph O’Neill BOTH missed out on the shortlist really is an outrage. What were they thinking?

  116. I am another reader who found The White Tiger to be a most unsatisfying book. In terms of the “new” India it did not tell me anything that a few articles from The Economist had not said far more effectively. As a novel, I think Sam’s cogent analysis points out a cascading series of weak points — which meant that for me it became a very annoying book. By contrast the Galgut creates an environment that is both challenging and interesting. And Linda Grant’s book (my personal favorite) created real characters facing genuinely intriguing choices — Adiga’s book certainly moved along, but it had none of these strengths.

  117. Sam said,

    First ever back-to-back Bookers?

    I forgot to mention that at the end of the paperback of The White Tiger there is an extract of Adiga’s next novel, Between the Assassinations out in July from Atlantic. Don’t all rush at once…

  118. John Self said,

    Crikey, that’s fast work! You know, I wouldn’t rule out reading it. I didn’t like The White Tiger, but Adiga is not without ability. Having said that, it sounds from the description more like a glorified collection of stories (possibly written before The White Tiger and pulled out of the bottom drawer before the Booker half-life expires? Or is that unnecessarily cynical of me?):

    The dazzling new book from the winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize: one of the summer’s most eagerly anticipated works of fiction. In “Between the Assassinations”, Aravind Adiga brings to life a chorus of distinctive Indian voices, all inhabitants in the fictional town of Kittur…His new book sizzles with the same humor, anger, and humanity that characterized “The White Tiger”. On India’s south-western coast, between Goa and Calicut, lies Kittur – a small, nondescript every town. Aravind Adiga acts as our guide to the town, mapping overlapping lives of Kittur’s residents. Here, an illiterate Muslim boy working at the train station finds himself tempted by an Islamic terrorist; a bookseller is arrested for selling a copy of “The Satanic Verses”; a rich, spoiled, half-caste student decides to explode a bomb in school; a sexologist has to find a cure for a young boy who may have AIDS. What emerges is the moral biography of an Indian town and a group portrait of ordinary Indians in a time of extraordinary transformation, over the seven-year period between the assassinations of Prime Minister Gandhi and her son Rajiv. Keenly observed and finely detailed, “Between the Assassinations” is a triumph of voice and imagination.

    They seem careful not to refer to it as a novel. Hm.

  119. Sam said,

    Ah, yes, John, looks like you’re right. Wikipedia also describe it as a ‘collection of short stories’ written before The White Tiger. If the stories are sufficiently well-related then I suppose they could’ve marketed it as a novel, in the same way that Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room was (a book, incidentally, which had the same editor as Adiga’s novel).

  120. The speed of production does suggest the bottom of the drawer, nothing wrong with that per se but I’d be more interested in seeing what he does having learned from White Tiger.

    Is the problem with White Tiger not so much that it’s a bad novel (I haven’t read it yet, though I plan to), as that it’s a first novel with strengths and weaknesses that like Child 44 got taken out of context and presented as a great work? Child 44 by all accounts is a solid thriller and if you’re a fan of the thriller genre it largely delivers, it’s just not (and never aimed to be) great literature. White Tiger is a first novel, normally one would forgive some flaws on that basis and cut a little slack, but it’s harder to do so when it’s held out as the work of the year.

    I suppose what I’m wondering is if the Booker did some of these writers any favours, exposing them outside their natural environment (Child 44) or before the author was perhaps fully ready for the bright lights (White Tiger).

  121. Sam said,

    It’s a rare first novel that’s ready for any bright lights; most could do with putting away in a drawer, unpublished, and the author waiting a few more years before publishing their first novel.

    It’s sad that there’s many a literary career blown out of the water because of a not-particularly-bad-but-not-particularly-good first novel. Not all go on to win the Booker. In fact, had Adiga’s novel not lucked out with this prize, it probably wouldn’t have earned out its considerable advance, and his publishers may well have then thought twice before putting any great marketing spend behind his second book. And if the second novel then flopped, then his publishers probably wouldn’t have renewed the contract, and Adiga would’ve been without a publisher, but with a big black mark against his name, and that, pretty much, would’ve been the end of his literary career. The God’s must’ve been smiling on him!

  122. Wasn’t he already a big seller in India before the Booker though? I suspect it was the hope of strong domestic sales that drove the advance, rather than international ones.

    That said, if he’d had strong domestic sales and some international recognition, but not a Booker prize, he might simply have remained a local author or perhaps reached international fame once his craft was a bit more developed, but who knows? That’s not what happened and it’s all guesswork now.

    Definitely agree on the unfortunate fate of many first novels and their authors, good points all.

    Odd Booker year, I’m glad my paperbacks only policy stopped me being tempted from joining John, Trevor and others in their Bookerathon. If I had, I suspect I’d be blogging about films today rather than literature, never wanting to read another book in my life.

  123. Trevor said,

    If I had, I suspect I’d be blogging about films today rather than literature, never wanting to read another book in my life.

    I have to admit, I’m already looking forward to this year’s Booker! It was a bad experience last year, but I’m pretty excited about this year’s jury.

  124. While I was grumpy about the outcome, I don’t regret my Booker involvement last year. The Imposter, The Clothes on Their Backs and Sea of Poppies all were good reads. With some months now passed by, I’m even glad I finished The Northern Clemency, unlike some, although it may be a while before I get to a reread. No contest is perfect and some have good years and bad years — the posts on the MB site already indicate there are good books worth reading this year, whether or not the jury likes them.

  125. I’d forgotten The Imposter was on the list.

    My paperback TBR list does include The Imposter, The Clothes on their Backs and (in the dim and distant future as I already own The Glass Palace and haven’t read it yet) Sea of Poppies. I’m looking forward to the Linda Grant most of those.

    The Northern Clemency, eh, I didn’t particularly like Hensher’s Kitchen Venom so the prospects of a middlingly reviewed 736 page tome don’t entirely entice me. For 700 plus pages I expect something rather special, and I’m not sure for me TNC would meet that standard. I could be wrong, but then that could be true of any book I pass by.

    I think with TNC, unless medical science develops some radical life extension technology, it will be going on my life’s too short pile.

  126. I think you could probably give TNC a pass. It is an interesting period piece, but not a good book. Invest your money — and most important, time — elsewhere. Still, I do like the Booker for drawing (failed) books like this to my attention.

  127. The Impostor actually wasn’t on the longlist. This is almost as bizarre as the fact that Child 44 was on the longlist.

    As for The White Tiger… I continue to steer clear. And I do not have high hopes for the blatant cash-in he is releasing this year, Between the Assassinations.

    One final thing (because I forgot to post this in November): Adiga is very politically vocal. He raises questions about how far authors should use their fame to wade into political matters.

    For example, he responded to the Mumbai attacks by blaming the government, loudly.

    The failure of the rulers of Bombay and India to anticipate or prevent this terror attack has been complete. We should applaud the bravery of the police, firefighters and soldiers who have fought the terrorists so valiantly – but we should hold their bosses, the politicians, to account.

    I don’t know how wise it is to jump into this kind of blame game. How could anyone have anticipated a militia of Islamic jihadists coming in boats from Pakistan?

  128. […] Self’ wrote a highly critical review of The White Tiger over at The Asylum, here. Trevor of themookseandthegripes wrote a much more positive one here. Both, as ever, are worth […]


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