The Dalai Lama speaks about the Four Noble Truths, maximizing your inner strength, dealing with anger and death, the power of compassion, the challenges facing humanity today (including globalization, warfare, environmental protection, overpopulation), and the great world religions' core tenets (as oppposed to their elements that primarily responded to the needs of the historic societies in which they emerged). As we're about to begin another new year, a perfect reminder of what matters (or should matter) to us -- and what doesn't -- and simple small things that each of us can implement in our own lives every day ... and short of His Holiness himself (who didn't originally set down these texts in English), there couldn't be any better person to read his words than Sir Derek Jacobi.
I have a suspicion bordering on phobia of pretty much every book being marketed as the greatest thing since sliced bread; and after this book won the Booker Prize, that suspicion / phobia certainly came into play big time here. So it was that it took me almost 10 years, and the discovery that there is an audio version read by Kerry Shale, for me to go near it after all.
The White Tiger is, ostensibly, a letter by one Ashok Sharma (aka Balram Halwai) to the Chinese Prime Minister who, All India Radio has just announced, intends to visit Bangalore in order to learn about entrepreneurship -- and that magic word has caught Mr. Halwai's attention:
"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. Especially in the field of technology. And these entrepreneurs -- we entrepreneurs -- have set up all these outsourcing companies that virtually run America now.
You hope to learn how to make a few Chinese entrepreneurs, that's why you're visiting. That made me feel good. But then it hit me that in keeping with international protocol, the prime minister and foreign minister of my country will meet you at the airport with garlands, small take-home sandalwood statues of Gandhi, and a booklet full of information about India's past, present, and future.
That's when I had to say that thing in English, sir. Out loud.
That was at 11:37 p.m. Five minutes ago.
I don't just swear and curse. I am a man of action and change. I decided right there and then to start dictating a letter to you.
Don't waste your money on those American books. They're so yesterday.
I am tomorrow."
And so, over the course of seven nights, Mr. Halwai proceeds to tell the story of his life, from a poor childhood in "the darkness" on the shores of the Ganga (Ganges), to an existence as a rich man's driver and servant in Delhi -- until fate puts the means into his hands to "better" himself and at last become the "entrepreneur" as who he presents himself to his reader: having watched and learned from his observations in his Delhi master's service until he himself had mastered the Indian game of business, politics, and public life; and firmly believing all the time that he really is, as a school inspector once made him believe, "that rarest of animals, the creature that comes along only once in a generation -- the white tiger."
It's a tale set against a vast, colorful, chaotic and utterly depraved canvas: though I hate describing books by way of a reference to another author's writings, The White Tiger really does remind me of the early works of Salman Rushdie; there is the same sort of exuberant narrative voice, enjoyment of word play, humor, tumult of persons, events and sensous experience, and the same sense of urgency underlying the story being told -- albeit, however, with one crucial difference: Salman Rushdie's protagonists, particularly in his early novels, may be deeply flawed; they may even set themselves outside of formal law, but deep down, they are not amoral. Yet, there is no question that this story's narrator is; as are, indeed, the majority of the characters populating this book. That didn't take away one iota of my enjoyment; in fact, anything but a profoundly amoral narrator wouldn't have worked in this particular context, and the last thing Balram Halwai himself wants is the reader's compassion or sympathy -- he wants his applause.
But to the extent that the "white tiger" himself is a product of Indian society, this book also operates as lacerating an indictment of modern Indian society as is possibly conceivable -- even if the indictment of a writer who seeks to cure ills by mercilessly exposing them -- and that, too, is a distinguishing mark from Rushdie's writing: Rushdie, even during and in the aftermath of the fatwa (which had made him persona non grata in India just as in the Muslim world and even in certain places in the West) never lost his abiding sympathy for India. He was (and is) certainly not blind to its manifold flaws, but the Indian subcontinent he describes, and its representatives in his books, always have some sort of redeeming quality that counterbalances an undeniable ill; and they're frequently a heck of a lot more sympathetic than the same novel's Westerners. When it comes to India, Rushdie would, I think, always argue that people are flawed, society is made up of people, and hence society is necessarily flawed -- but people, and hence society, are / is way too multifaceted to be reduced to their flaws only. Mr. Adiga might even agree on this; The White Tiger doesn't read like a book written by someone who has given up on his country and is just airing his grievances. But he clearly believes that shock therapy, albeit sweetened by humor, is what is urgently called for.
The one thing that probably contributed most to my enjoyment of the wild ride on which Mr. Adiga invites his readers -- other than this book's narrative voice -- was its audio narration by Kerry Shale. To stick with the Rushdie comparisons for a moment longer, in the Satanic Verses there is a character nicknamed "the man of a thousand voices": that, in a nutshell, to me is Kerry Shale. There are many audiobook narrators that I greatly admire; yet, while they all manage to switch characters, and hence voices, and go from a rumbling bass to a high pitch and from the Queen's English to Texan drawl or any other sort of accent seamlessly and in the blink of an eye, and thus give each character their own, unique voice and personality, I have yet to come across any narrator who has perfected this ability to as high an art form as Mr. Shale -- and it's on marvelous display here as well.
I listened to this book for square 6 of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season -- Bodhi Day: "Read a book set in Nepal, India or Tibet." Given that the book's narrator works as a servant for the better part of the story, it would however also work for square 15 (Boxing Day).
My completist quest regarding Kazuo Ishiguro's novels and short stories (begun long before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature) took me back to one of his earlier works -- I only had An Artist of the Floating World and The Unconsoled to finish to have read all of his novels; and with the completion of this book, now only The Unconsoled remains.
Like in his very first published novel, A Pale View of Hills, in An Artist of the Floating World Ishiguro turns to the aftermath of WWII in his parents' home country, Japan (Ishiguro himself was born there, but grew up in England). The novel(la)'s protagonist and narrator is Masuji Ono, an artist who had risen in the imperialist war years, but now sees society around him changing as a result of the outcome of WWII. "The floating world," facially, is the pleasure district of Ono's (unnamed) city, which underwent a first change with the onset of the imperialist regime, and then another one when Japanese society changed yet again after the end of the war: the meeting place of Ono and his artist friends, which before the war had inspired them to paint delicate pictures set in half-shades and pastel tones, but in the war years had changed to a rambunctious locale inspiring bold colors and brush strokes and loud, patriotic messages instead. In a larger sense, of course, "the floating world" is Japanese society itself and its political transformations during and after WWII.
Switching back and forth between -- and contrasting -- Ono's memory of the war and pre-war years, and his postwar retirement life, An Artist of the Floating World traces the stories not only of Ono-san himself but also of several of his fellow artists -- fellow students at the villa of master teacher Moriyama, and later, students of his own -- as well as Ono's two daughters: one happily and fortuitously married while Ono's star was still shining high in the artistic and social firmament; the other, having seen one engagement come to naught in the post-war years over her father's "burdened" past already, now setting her hopes on the scion of a rising family, while her father makes the rounds of his former acquaintances to ensure that the detective sent by the prospective bridegroom's family to inquire into the bona fides of the bride and her father will hear nothing but good things.
As always in Ishiguro's novels, though, memory and the tricks it plays on our mind is the true topic here -- virtually all of Ishiguro's narrators are unreliable in the extreme, and Ono-san is certainly no exception. As such, we never get a crystal clear picture of what exactly was his role during the war years, but from the details revealed over the course of the novel it becomes clear, at the very least, that he used to be a man of influence, whose recommendations could help make a person's career (though not of sufficient influence to spare someone whom he had denounced for an unpatriotic attitude a worse fate than a severe "talking-to" by the authorities), his paintings played a crucial role in the war machine's propaganda, he suffered a drastic fall from favor at the end of the war, his paintings are now all packed up and stored away -- and if he doesn't actually feel genuine remorse for his role during the war years, he is at the very least aware that he is expected to feel remorse; all of which, after having heard several stories of musicians and corporate executives who have committed suicide by way of a very Japanese "apology" for their real or perceived crimes, causes him to rise to such an apology, apparently entirely unprovoked, at his younger daughter's miai (the traditional dinner at which she is introduced to her would-be bridegroom).
Ono-san is not necessarily one of Ishiguro's most endearing protagonists, which, as in the case of Stevens, the butler / narrator in The Remains of the Day, has a lot to do with his reluctance to take off his rose-tinted glasses when looking in the mirror (even though, if the reaction of his bridegroom-to-be's family to his words of "apology" during the miai, and the young man's overall response to Ono -- as indeed the fact that they are willing to consider his daughter as a bride for their son to begin with, and the fact that there never seems to have been any official punishment or repercussions against Ono other than his art's fall from favor -- is anything to go by, he's probably more a pompous fool than anything else, supremely amenable to flattery, but ultimately judged as harmless by those that matter).
This is not a story set on a large canvas; rather, it's a vignette taking a look at post-WWII Japan through the prism of a miniature lens. And while Ishiguro has certainly succeeded marvelously with this sort of setting in The Remains of the Day, by and large I find that I prefer those of his novels which create a somewhat wider landscape, such as Never Let Me Go and When We Were Orphans. A story told by an unreliable narrator needs space for the reader to obtain their own perspective, and being tied too closely to the narrator him- or herself for lack of the inclusion of sufficient events that would allow such a perspective to grow leaves me, at the very least, a bit unsatisfied; more so, in any event, than in Ishiguro's longer novels, The Remains of the Day, When We Were Orphans, and Never Let Me Go. While in those books I not only had a clear I idea who the narrators thought they were but also who I thought they were, here I know who Ono-san thinks he is, but not fully who others think he is -- nor have I come to a finite conclusion as to who I think he really is.
I read this book for the St. Martin's Day square of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season, after having had the dreidel pick this as my next book for me for the Hanukkah square.
I read this for the BookLikes-opoly game. Somewhere back in my blog posts is the history. . . .
Anyway, I got the Kindle edition free when Open Road Media was giving stuff away last year, and it fit whatever square it was that I landed on. So I read it. I knew nothing about author Norman Lewis, and not a whole lot about India, other than what I've picked up reading a few novels set there -- The Far Pavilions, Shadow of the Moon, The Zemindar, The India Fan, Blood Moon over Bengal and The Moonstone.
Lewis sets out in the early 1990s on an exploration of a part of India that the tourists don't see, where the indigenous tribes still live supposedly much the same way they have for centuries. I was expecting something like Margaret Mead or Bronislaw Malinowski, and I was even prepared to set aside what I expected to be Lewis's racist, colonial point of view in order to enjoy the book.
The racism and colonialism are there, but there wasn't much else. The hotels were bad, the food was bad, the phone service was bad, the roads were bad, and Lewis never got to see any animals. No tigers, no elephants. Every morning he and his driver set out in the fog, and there were such lyrical descriptions of the fog, as though some dramatic, evocative narrative was going to unfold. It never did.
Government was intruding on the tribes, tearing down their traditional homes and replacing them with concrete houses. That's the primary thing I came away with, other than the fog. Tribe after tribe - I've forgotten their names, which were often similar to each other -- with little in-depth exploration and virtually no personification.
Was there a goddess in the stones of the temples he encountered? Oh, I think so, but I'm not sure. Not enough of one to be memorable. The book just didn't live up to the title, or even the cover.
I finished it, because I truly wanted to learn. All I learned was that there was nothing there. Not even a tiger or an elephant.