The White Tiger

February 6, 2014

white tigerWhen I first encountered The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker-prize winning novel about class, the caste system, corruption, violence, poverty and India’s emerging super-rich, I wasn’t that interested. Another novel about violence, I thought. Balram Halwai, the chauffeur and main character, was bound to be a bit like the tigerish bully in The Life of Pi. I didn’t want to read about bullies. I wanted the gentle and rare over the brutish and personality-disordered.

Well yes, Balram (the White Tiger of the title) is a bully, but he is also sensitive in his own way. His mother dies when he’s still young, his father works himself to death as a rickshaw-puller and Balram’s extended family live in grinding poverty in an oppressive feudal-like class system in the poor state of Bihar in North-Eastern India. Balram, like the once-in-a-generation White Tiger of the title, is different, however. He might be a man who is still afraid of lizards and who bows and scrapes before his bosses, but he is special. He is intelligent, cunning, ambitious and lucky and is able to rise above his very limited circumstances.

This year I picked it up again and I was pleasantly surprised at how readable (and also interesting and disturbing) it is. The starting point is a rather awkward framing-device. Balram writes a letter in seven parts over seven nights to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. Halwai, who is in hiding in Bangalore after killing his boss and stealing a large amount of money, hears that the Chinese premier is coming to Bangalore to learn about Indian entrepreneurs, and decides to tell his story.

And it is an interesting story, which opened my eyes to some of the vast complexity of India’s class system. Balram is a poor, uneducated (but quite intelligent) young man when he gets his lucky break as a chauffeur to one of India’s emerging rich families. His immediate boss Ashok is the son of a powerful landlord from Balram’s childhood village.

Through cunning, bullying and luck, Balram gets to drive the American-educated son Ashok and his American-Indian wife ‘Pinky Madam’ to New Delhi where they live in an expensive apartment, Buckingham Towers B, while the servants live in a maze of poorer rooms below ground. Balram and Ashok start out good and relatively innocent and quite quickly become corrupted. Pinky Madam runs over a child in freak drunk driving accident, Balram takes the rap, and this spirals into a situation in which Balram murders his boss and steals a massive bribe which was intended for one of the country’s ministers. In making a new life for himself in Bangalore as the owner of a taxi business, he becomes a symbol of the new Indian entrepreneur.

As implausible as I found the ending, what I did find interesting was the master-servant relationship between Ashok and Balram. I was also interested to see how the novel had been received. Reviewers praised the searing intensity with which Adiga dissects India’s economic and social problems but also panned the crude simplicity of this portrayal. Characters here are rich or poor, black or white. There’s no middle class moderation and gentle upward advancement. (Adiga compares himself with Dickens and there are also comparisons with Zola). Some reviewers praised the novel’s gritty realism and then either commended or criticised Adiga’s attempt to capture the sense (if not the essence or the vocabulary) of a desperate North Indian working class man’s subjectivity. The task is a massive one and I’m not in a position to judge how well Adiga has fared there. One thing that does strike me is that this is a well educated man’s attempt to imagine himself into a working class character’s life. It’s not bad (jarring in some places perhaps) but also not entirely convincing.

Three other comments to make. Firstly, Adiga does a good job of describing the narcissism which pervades oppressive class arrangements. The exploitation, lack of empathy and general lack of sensitivity are shocking. It is not hard to imagine that corruption and ultimately murder are the logical outcomes of such an oppressive system.

Secondly, women get a very bad rap in The White Tiger and that is another major weakness for me. Of course, Balram is a narcissistic murderer and thief and so we shouldn’t expect him to be very rational and objective in his views on fellow Indians. But the stereotypes here are too extreme. All politicians appear to be corrupt. All women (admittedly viewed through Balram’s distorted view) are prostitutes, simple, narrow-minded wives, or cruel matriarchs.

Thirdly, I was interested (and also disappointed) to hear that The White Tiger beat Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture to the 2008 Booker prize – apparently because Anne Enright had won the year before and it was not considered advisable to award the prize to an Irish novelist two years in a row. I’ve been wondering whether more violent novels (and I would include The Slap here) garner critical acclaim because of their shock value. Do they reflect society more accurately than the gentler novels?

But as a starting point in reflecting the new India with its globalised multinational companies, its vast disparities of rich and poor and some of the multitude of stories that lie underneath the glossy surface of the “world’s largest democracy”, The White Tiger is worth a read.


January 13, 2010

I finished Engleby by Sebastian Faulks this weekend and I’ve been thinking about it on and off this week. It affected me quite powerfully because I immersed myself in the distorted perceptions of the narrator for almost two days as I was caught up in the story and I wanted to know how it would turn out.

[Spoiler alert: The discussion that follows gives away the key plot development so click away if you don’t want to know what happens. I think a lot of readers will anticipate what happens and it’s still interesting to see how Faulks gets there. But of course a lot of people will feel that their reading is spoiled if they know the key plot development in advance.]

Contemporary Writers gives an excellent synopsis:

Engleby (2007) is in many ways Faulks’ most unusual novel. It shares with Human Traces the subject of human consciousness but its setting and manner is entirely different. Instead of heroic and altruistic scientific Victorian characters, we are introduced to an-almost contemporary voice from the outset: ‘My name is Mike Engelby, and I’m in my second year at an ancient university’. This is the Cambridge of the early 1970s, replete with drinking, pop culture and dull tutorials. Engelby proceeds to tell us of his encounters there, especially with good-looking student Jennifer Arkland, whose subsequent disappearance forms the essence of the plot. Engelby proves to be an engaging narrator, even as he unveils his disturbed family history and increasingly devious behaviour, but also – of course – an untrustworthy one. He comes to admit that ‘My memory’s odd … I’m big on detail, but there are holes in the fabric’. We follow his burgeoning career in the national media as the years unfold, and his viewpoint on events becomes ever darker. As always with Faulks, the period detailing is excellent, the narrative drive strong, and full of clever contrivances. While Sebastian Faulks’ forte has been to depict romance under pressure of war, in this startling book he shows another side to his talents – summoning up an almost contemporary era as well as more disturbing aspects of humanity.

My emotional reaction to this novel was powerful. I felt sad and also quite horrified. And then I had a feeling of being used somehow and I went looking for blog reactions. It’s interesting that readers are very divided on whether they loved or hated it.

At a broader level, I wondered why it is that in most crime novels the victim is a woman (and often a pretty woman). What if he had killed a male student? Would we as readers have cared less? I was reminded of the tragic Cape Town story of the American student Amy Biehl and how her death (at the time of South Africa’s transition to democracy) became more important in many ways that the countless other deaths we read about or hear about in South Africa.

By choosing to depict one more man killing another woman, is Faulks perpetuating a dominant narrative of male violence and female victimhood? By way of comparison, the other novel set in Cambridge which I read recently is Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds. I won’t review it here but perhaps the triumph of that novel (as one reviewer pointed out) is the character of the female academic Martha Pierce. And obviously the Cambridge that is depicted there is very different from the distorted perceptions of Mike Engleby (however interesting and fascinating they might be). Hearts and Minds touched on serious issues (ethical, cultural) and was still an uplifting, enjoyable and easy read. With Engleby the going was a lot tougher at first but then I was pulled along by the powerful narrative arc.

I had a sense after reading Engleby that the female character was a means to an end and we never, even when reading her diary, really saw things from her perspective. In the background there was always the filter of Mike Engleby’s perceptions which controlled our access to this other story.

From a psychological point of view, there were a number of thought-provoking issues and it made me very curious to know more about amnestic disorders (memory disorders) and the experience of dissociation. I’m also interested to find out more about how personality disorders can be considered to constitute diminished responsibility for violent crimes. Is a personality disorder a ‘mental illness’? The expert psychiatry witness in this novel says that Mike Engleby is not mentally ill but rather that he suffers from schizoid personality disorder. But isn’t that a form of mental illness? I suppose you could have a situation in which a personality disorder would not be considered a mental illness for legal purposes but could be considered one for lay purposes.

I would favour a broader definition of mental illness for lay purposes, and I’m certainly at pains to reassure my clients who complain of anxiety or depression that their symptoms are quite common and don’t make them different or defective. When does anxiety or depression become a mental illness? And why would someone with Borderline Personality Disorder not be considered mentally ill?

And then I was remembering Adam Phillips’s contention that we are all crazy to some degree and that craziness is actually part of the human condition. For me it comes down to our ability to manage or contain that craziness. We might have the odd violent nightmare or express a wish to hurt somebody out of frustration but we wouldn’t act on this. This is what it means to be sane, to control our crazy impulses and to act in accordance with what society expects. With Engleby this wasn’t the case and the violence escaped in a very uncontained way, which he subsequently blocked off and was largely unable to remember.

I did think that Engleby was excellently written and it made a much stronger impression on me than the other Faulks that I read, which was On Green Dolphin Street (also good but I have almost no memory of it). With Engleby I had disturbed thoughts on the Saturday night as I filtered his own problems through my own experience. And then when I finished I took a drive to the supermarket and was quite relieved at the simple warmth of the brief exchange with the teller. Those transactions are quite absent from Engleby’s life where he was quite trapped in his own (brilliant but damaged) mind. His attachments were poor and everything deteriorates from the lack of real human contact.

Another interesting aspect for me was that I realised that anger, if properly expressed, could have been a redemptive force in Engleby’s life. If he was irritated with Jen for not talking to him or taking much of an interest and he was able to express this to himself then it would have been easier for him to manage the frustration and not act on it by becoming violent.

Will be interested to hear your thoughts. Hope my spoiler review was not too spoiling!

On Violence (and the silly season)

November 28, 2008

Reading DoctorDi’s blog post today on the terror attacks in Mumbai, I was thinking about our general incomprehension in the face of such extreme violence. (Incidentally, congrats to Di on being long-listed by Veruna in Aus for her novel. I know she’s busy with the rewrites so doesn’t get to leave many comments around the blogosphere, but you should read her stuff.)

Perhaps it’s too early for analysis of the attacks and I’m reluctant to even go there. What’s my interest in this? Why should I sound off on other peoples’ tragedies? But I also think that there’s something to be learned here. Regular readers may know that I’ve been preoccupied for a while with empathy and violence. How violence results from a total lack of empathy. In simple form: Anger – Empathy = Violence.

With high levels of violence in South Africa, it’s not hard to find examples. One of the dominant stories in Cape Town in the past few months has been that of a senior policeman, Marius van der Westhuizen, who gunned down his three children as a way of punishing his wife. Yesterday I read how the forensic psychiatrist described his actions as possibly the most severe example of narcissistic rage that her team had seen in the past few months.

Violence feeds the ego, as Adam Phillips reminds us. And our commercial culture is only too ready to feed our egos with gratuitous violence in the form of violent movies, news images, computer games and hate speech. Di was asking what the perpetrators of the Mumbai violence might want from this horror. And as I read her incomprehension which matched my own yesterday, I started thinking about the need for publicity and self-importance of the perpetrators which links in with the needs of the commercial media to generate media consumption. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to reflect on the rise of the 24-hour news channels in the wake of the Gulf Wars. And then to remember how 9/11 had us glued to CNN and Sky and BBC (or whatever your channel was) for days on end in absolute horror.

So what do the perpetrators want? Reports suggest a surge of hatred and hostility between India and Pakistan for a start. The cooling of ill-feeling between the two countries is clearly not good for the terrorism business. I’m sure other analysts will reflect on a general hatred for Western values which links up with narcissistic injuries of wounded and excluded identities. But I’ll leave it there for today. I know this is rather depressing talk for a Friday. This is supposed to be the silly season after all. One of our wonderfully talented cartoon strips in SA is “Madam and Eve”. The best exchanges occur between Granny Anderson and the cute black girl (whose name escapes me). Granny Anderson, a diminutive gin-and-tonic-swilling expat from England, is usually goaded into locking the cute black girl (CBG) out of the house for disturbing her afternoon nap with funny and pertinent questions. “Now?” asks the CBG. “How about now?” “Now?” She’s wearing a false nose and glasses and is asking Granny Anderson if teh silly season has started yet. Well, it’s clearly not today. But my online Xmas shopping started yesterday. Books and CDs. *purr*

No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers, 2007)

September 6, 2008

No Country for Old Men (No Country) is the most violent of the Coen brothers 10 movies to date and also the most successful, winning four Oscars including Best Film and Best Director. I enjoyed it and I was also disturbed by it, and perhaps I was disturbed by not really being disturbed (if you follow the logic). What alarmed me as much as the violence was the emotional bleakness of the movie. You expect people to die in a Hollywood crime drama / noir / thriller/ black comedy but you don’t expect the characters to be so blasé about it.

NPR does a good plot summary:

A hunter, stalking a wounded deer in the Texas desert, comes across a scene of carnage: A drug deal gone wrong, corpses everywhere, $2 million in a suitcase. The hunter, played in No Country for Old Men by Josh Brolin, takes the suitcase — and knowing that he’s about to go from hunter to hunted, he takes a few precautions, too, spiriting himself out of town in one direction, and his wife in another.
Unluckily for them both, a psycho with a Buster Brown haircut and a weird weapon of choice is already on the hunter’s trail. The weapon — a compressed-air gun of the sort used for killing cattle in slaughterhouses — leaves no clues, which initially leaves the local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) more than a little perplexed. But he’ll eventually connect the killer and the hunter, and he’ll prove pretty good at playing catch-up in a film that directors Joel and Ethan Coen have orchestrated as one long, seriously alarming chase sequence.

Based on the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country is Texas Noir or what film buffs call neo-noir. Wikipedia tells me that Film Noir “is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize moral ambiguity”. The morally ambiguous hero is Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) while the film’s “ultimate bad-ass” is Anton Chigurh (Javier Badem) whom Walter Kirn fittingly describes as “a strict, conscientious, self-taught psychopath who vigilantly maintains his mental ill health”. Tommy Lee Jones plays the good guy, Sheriff Bell, who’s a weatherworn, taciturn third-generation lawman with old-fashioned family values. I suspect that in real life he would probably vote for McCain and Palin in the US election — or at least approve of Palin’s “God and Guns” philosophy.

Accepting their Academy Award for Best Director, older brother Joel commented on the brother’s 20-year history of film-making: “What we do now doesn’t feel that much different from what we were doing then. We’re very thankful to all of you out there for continuing to let us play in our corner of the sandbox.”

I like that, a recognition that film-making is about playing. And being interested as I am in the psychology of violence, I think it’s an interesting debate about whether depicting violence in movies (even if tastefully done in a relatively restrained way here) is a good thing or a bad thing. In my opinion, what would make the depiction of such violence worthwhile would be if it contributed to our understanding of ourselves as emotionally complex, both loving and hating. One of the things that bugs me about this movie is that the violence doesn’t ring true. In my experience and from what I’ve read on the topic, violence is not as clean-cut and un-emotional as depicted here. Of course there are many different types of violence but the general sense that I get is that “violence gratifies the ego” (Adam Phillips). Anyone who’s seen the pictures of a panga-wielding mob at the time of the recent xenophobic violence in South Africa will immediately recognise the glee etched on the faces of the men seemingly intent on hurting or killing the African immigrants in their townships. In No Country there’s the complete opposite. Anton Chigurh takes delight in his twisted primitive logic (“Call it, Friendo”) but no apparent joy in his killing spree. There’s violence and a lot of chasing and fleeing but no emotional depth.

Walter Kirn calls Cormac McCarthy’s novel “sinister high hokum” but praises the skill with which it’s executed. He also has a neat analysis of the gender divisions:

At times, the whole novel borders on caricature, so unremittingly hard-boiled that it threatens to turn to steam. The streamlined, barely punctuated sentences delineate the grisly action — from running gun battles on small-town Main Streets to the agonized bandaging of bullet wounds in obscure motel rooms — in the point-by-point manner of a technical manual, enumerating every muzzle blast and diagraming every ambush as though violence were a dry industrial process. The characters’ states of mind rate little commentary and are completely dissolved in their behavior, which consists of fleeing and fighting and little else. The women involved are on hand to cower, grieve and plead for explanations of the mayhem that the men who’ve unleashed it decline to give them, partly out of old-school chivalry but mostly because they don’t have any answers. All the men have is momentum and loaded weapons, which seem to fire of their own volition, since that’s what loaded weapons like to do.

Perhaps one of the arguments in favour of this kind of film violence is the detailed examination of the consequences. Once the chase is underway there won’t be a resolution until the bloody end (or even then). But a counter-argument revolves around the two-dimensional nature of Chigurh. “You don’t have to do this” is what many of the victims say to Chigurh who is unmoved and kills them anyway. He is the “ultimate bad-ass”, the “devil incarnate”, a ghost, a cipher, a homicidal lunatic, a psychotic serial killer. What makes him so powerful is that he is a two-dimensional screen for our projections of seemingly-unstoppable, calmly-determined evil. He has a primitive morality: life or death is decided by Fate and the toss of a coin.

But if Chigurh were a client on the couch, there’d be nothing to work with. He’s pure evil but he has no history, no family, nothing which serves to explain his behaviour other than his otherness and his bad haircut. One of his defining attributes is that he has no sense of humour and shows little or no emotion of any kind. He’s a feeling-less robotic killer with an iron determination. “You can’t stop what’s coming,” says Woody Harrelson’s character, who also compares him to the Bubonic plague.

As a viewer I want to say, Wait, Stop, even so-called psychopaths have feelings of some kind. Conveniently, Chigurh is an outsider, he’s different in some way. Put him in a turban and there’d be a massive outcry but the outsider-ness here is not that much different (with the obvious disparity being that Spaniards don’t take the character of Anton Chigurh personally).

In terms of the psychology of violence, there are no easy lessons to be had from No Country. But from a cinematic point of view, it was, well, fun. The Coen brothers are masters of their sandbox and give them a dark comedy and they will insinuate their way into your consciousness with a haunting thriller.