Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On my reading list...

... would be The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga.

This has just been announced as the Man Booker Prize winner of this year.

I've always been interested in Anglo-Indian literature, from Vikram Seth to Arundathi Roy to that author of the "Booker of Bookers", Salman Rushdie, so I am very much looking forward to reading Adiga's work.

What's really heartening about this win to me, is that Adiga is a first-time author at age 33 (he was previously an Asia correspondent for Time magazine). The White Tiger is his first work of fiction and he won the Booker with this very first book, beating other more established authors to the coveted prize - indeed, seeing off Salman Rushdie's newest work which didn't even make it onto the short list! How inspirational is his win for aspiring authors like myself!

In his interview with BBC Newsnight's Kirstie Wark earlier, after receiving his £50,000 prize at the award ceremony, Adiga said that, although his book is not meant to be "an angry book" (one of the Booker judges has apparently characterised it as such), and shouldn't be seen as pure "social commentary" (in answer to Kirstie Wark's question), contemporary Indian literature should take a much more critical look at the changes taking place in Indian society and raise tough questions on issues such as the ever-growing gap between rich and poor. In his words, as India and China take their place on the world stage, they should be prepared to "take some of the blows" as well (though in literary terms of course). That they should no longer be "protected" from social criticisms and indeed, literary critique.

I couldn't agree more with him on the above. Although, it has to be said, he was not the only one to have attempted a critical look at Indian society, nor was he the key trailblazers of such a genre. Both Vikram Seth and Arundathi Roy, two Anglo-Indian authors that I deeply, deeply admire, have unflinchingly and unerringly dissected the various dysfunctions of post-Independence Indian society, whilst not losing sight of the central task of a storyteller - that of engaging the readers with the story and the characters. In fact, ever since I first read A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth in my first year in university, I have always harboured the wish that I would one day be able to write a magnum opus like that, one that would effortlessly take in stride the broad sweeps of history and illuminate how they shape contemporary society, and to reconstruct in depth within it, the lives of ordinary people.

That said, Adiga is the only one on the scene who made a stab at skewering the contradictions of contemporary India as it emerged as a global superpower since the turn of this century. I just can't wait to see how Adiga does it, and how his current efforts compare with Seth's or Roy's past achievements.*

The other more established (and some may argue, more deserving) authors on the Booker short-list included the Irish author Sebastian Barry, who wrote "The Secret Scripture". I haven't read any of Barry's work previously, but unfortunately, his will have to wait.

*Astute readers may notice how I didn't mention Rushdie here, and it is no accident. Despite how much he's been lauded as a contemporary literary giant, I really think he is more hype than substance. I read his Midnight's Children (voted as the Booker of Bookers) and the Ground Beneath Her Feet, and yes, I get his magical realism, but on that score I would have preferred Haruki Murakami. I also get his attempt to skewer traditional gender relations within straitjacket Indian conventions, but on that front Arundathi Roy did a far better job, with a much more authentic female voice. Moreover, his storytelling technique - the stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences - become a rather cliched imitation of the original master of stream-of-consciousness writing, our very own James Joyce. Critics have hammered Zadie Smith (when her first book White Teeth was out) as ripping off Salman Rushdie by not being skillful and authentic enough, yet I'm amazed they haven't actually applied the same critique to Salman Rushdie himself**. I'm really rather glad that his Enchantress of Florence didn't make it to the Booker short-list this year. He's been hogging the literary lime-light long enough, and it's really time it finally moves on to showcase other worthier talents.

**(A further digression). Of course, I'm saying all of the above without having read Rushdie's Satanic Verses, that seminal work on the basis of which he became an overnight international cause celebre due to the fatwas issued against him. But I really have no interest in reading that work of his because of how he had managed to turn that book and its reception in Arab countries into a sheer publicity stunt for himself. I still remember very clearly his interview on the Late Late Show here with Gay Byrne a looooong loooooong time ago (jeez, it must have been more than 15 years ago now!), when he was asked about the book and the fatwas and how he was coping with living life under 24-hour security. I remember in the course of the cordial Gay Byrne inteview, Rushdie gave this answer, "I find it very difficult to understand how anyone could be offended by a book. If you don't agree with a book, you could just shut it. Simple." On the surface, that seemed a rather reasonable stance to take. But that statement, and the non-chalant why-are-you-looking-at-me-I'm-just-a-nobody attitude inherent within it, is to me what made him a fraud. For a writer to try to pretend to not recognise the power of the written word, that to me is sheer hypocrisy. Not that I'm justifying the fatwas against him, NOT at all. But even at that tender young age (I must have been only 13 or at most 14 at the time) when I saw that interview, I believed and still believe that the pen can be mightier than the sword. On the surface Rushdie is against any manners of limits of freedom of expression, but he was either being disingenuous, or he was being very stupid when he asserted that the way to go about protecting the right to freedom of expression is to argue, as he did, that expression doesn't matter at all and doesn't mean anything at the end. Not because expression is innate to human nature and serves a vital function in society, but because it is, in his word, "harmless", so why not? Right. So we really shouldn't bother calling on Rushdie to defend literature if it happens to have any impact upon society.***

*** (An even further digression). In contrast to Rushdie, I'm so glad that the Nobel Prize for Literature this year is Le Clezio, who, according to the prize committee, is a "conjurer who tried to lift words above the degenerate state of everyday speech and to restore to them the power to invoke an essential reality." My French is nowhere fluent enough to be able to read his books in the original, and I understand that English translations of his works are not that easy to come by. But still, his works would be on the list of books (getting longer by the minute!) that I shall look forward to reading when I finish the dratted thesis!

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At Wed Oct 15, 08:27:00 p.m. IST, Blogger The Man Who Loves Everton said...

when i read the news this morning, i'd like to grab one copy of the white tiger. the times said, "...calls to mind the best that fiction cna offer: remaking the world through a vision of actual circumstance...the white tiger is an exciting novel because it understands how to make reality suit it needs".

At Thu Oct 16, 01:36:00 p.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Thanks TMWLE (what a long acronym!) for stopping by my humble blog :)

Thanks for the Times quote. The Guardian has a great piece too on an interview with Adiga. His book is causing a furore in India and yet he is the complete opposite to Rushdie when it comes to societal responsibility of literature. I'm even more eager to read his book now.

At Thu Oct 16, 08:42:00 p.m. IST, Blogger The Man Who Loves Everton said...

you kwow what? i always wonder why hk cannot have ONE good english writer. i am not talking about booker prize winner. just a fair good one.

like india, hk was a former british colony.

P.S. you may simply call me The Evertonian.

At Thu Oct 16, 09:17:00 p.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Well, you may not know this, but English is the only common language on the Indian subcontinent, there is a much more ingrained culture of English usage among the middle-class Indians in everyday life than Hongkongers.

Anyway, it's not entirely true that we didn't have a good HK writer in English. Have you come across Adeline Yen-Mah? Granted she lives in the States now, and granted she wasn't born in HK per se but came down to HK shortly after WW2. But she spent her formative years in HK, then got sent educated in England, then returned to HK to work in hospitals for years before emigrating to the US again. You should check out her autobiography, Falling Leaves, which has lots of precious description about the first generation HK families in the post-war era.

At Thu Oct 16, 09:19:00 p.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At Thu Oct 16, 09:22:00 p.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Oops, "sent AWAY TO BE educated".

At Wed Oct 22, 05:47:00 p.m. IST, Anonymous augustine said...

Yay! Someone who agrees with me that Rushdie is just a bit overrated...I have enjoyed the magical realism of his work, but in no way did they impress me as much as Ngugi in the past. Speaking about Indian writers in English, have you ever read Jhumpa Lahiri? I am reading her new book Unaccustomed Earth and am quite happy with it.

At Thu Oct 23, 12:28:00 p.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Hey Augustine long time no see it's great to "meet" you again! I'm glad you still read this blog now and again. Hope you're keeping well.

Lahiri is one of my to-be-read Indian writers actually! I'm so glad you mentioned her (and am so glad to find another Rushdie "trasher"!). I have only read British-Indian authors so far (thus Anglo-Indian as opposed to Indian-American literature), and of the minority American writers I've only concentrated on African American and Chinese American lit. Is there a particular book of hers that you'd particularly recommend as a starter introduction to her writing? I'd definitely get her latest book as well given your positive comments above.

Look forward to exchanging more reading notes with you in future :)


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