Monday, 17 November 2008

Two Booker books

I’ve just read two books which had a similar feel – one was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year and the other won this year. As long as you know that this year’s winner was The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and have even a passing acquaintance with last year’s list, you’ll probably guess that the other one was Mosin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Why the similar feel? Well, Adiga’s novel is set in India, Hamid’s in Pakistan (though much of the action takes place in New York) so there’s the subcontinental resemblance, but that’s not it.
Both are first-person narratives detailing the dramatic changes in one person’s circumstances as they move away from the place they have grown up to seek their fortune elsewhere. But that’s not it either.

No, the thing which gives these very different books such a spookily similar feel is the fact that they are both constructed as stories which are being told to an audience of one.

Balram Halawi, a sweet-maker by caste and a cut above those around him by his own estimation, describes himself as a social entrepreneur. At the beginning of the book he is in his incongruously chandelier-lit office in Bangalore late at night, waiting for his ‘start up’ business to come alive as the call centre workers begin to trickle home. He is, improbably, speaking to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, who is supposedly making a visit to Bangalore. Balram knows what Mr Wen will be shown on his visit and he wants to tell him what India is really like. So he tells him his own life story, the story of the one-in-a-generation phenomenon, the white tiger.

Mr Wen, he knows, will be shown the upside of modern India, the technology companies, the businesses ‘outsourced’ from Europe and North America, the shiny malls, the extensive building projects, the rising entrepreneur class which is going to propel India into the forefront of twentyfirst century economies.
What Balram Halawi wants Mr Wen – and, of course, us – to understand is that this dynamic modern India is an insubstantial urban mirage accessible only to the rich, the successful, the privileged; that the other ninety nine point nine percent of Indian society exists, in some sense, to service this mirage.
Balram’s India is a place where ruthlessness and not merit is a guarantor of success, where corruption is not simply common but necessary, where the vast majority of the populace are content to live in what he calls ‘the Rooster Coop’, unaware that they can break out, flap away and live a different sort of life. He presents an India where, despite the modern veneer, the caste system is as predictive of one’s chances of success as the feudal system was of the villein’s. In other words, if you’re born poor, don’t expect to be rich any time soon.
In Balram’s India the family structure – far from being the supportive, wisdom-imparting social network which we all mourn the loss of in the west – is a leech on a man’s talent and a bar to his ambition.

Balram’s India is not a nice place and Balram is not a nice person. He is, the novel asks us to believe, what his life, and India, has made him.

Changez – the considerably more likeable narrator of The Reluctant Fundamentalist – directs his narrative to someone considerably closer at hand, an American whom he has encountered in a restaurant and whom he treats to dinner and his life story. But, like Wen Jiabao, the American remains silent all through the book-long encounter. Though we infer his reactions (nervy, mistrustful, gun-toting) from the comments Changez makes in his slightly stilted, formal English, we never hear him speak, never hear his reactions to the picture Changez paints of a young Pakistani intellectual who goes to Princeton on a full scholarship, falls in love with an American girl (and her country) and then goes on to work as an analyst at a very prestigious firm. It is this business, with its constant insistence that its employees focus on ‘the fundamentals’ (ie the bottom line) which gives the book the reluctance of its title.

Or is it? While the novel shows how Changez grows disenchanted with America’s assumption of superiority in all possible spheres and rejects it in favour of his own country and its more ancient, less brash culture – his rejection of the ‘fundamentals’ of capitalism – I wonder if it’s also trying to suggest that, in rejecting one empire’s assumption of the right to dominate, Changez has made a positive decision for an alternative kind of domination?

The ending of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is ambiguous – at least to me.
As the novel unfolds, it has become clear that the large American is armed and military; given his constant silent watchfulness, it’s hard not to see him as an intelligence-gatherer of some kind. Is Changez’s insistence on taking hours to tell him his life-story an elaborate attempt to keep the American in the restaurant until some plan can be put into place? The final page certainly suggests this, or this possibility.
Has Changez, however reluctantly, abandoned the fundamentals of the capitalist creed only to take up those of another creed altogether?

So, similarities:
Both books ask what individuals will sacrifice to be successful in the world; each comes up with very different answers.
Both books, in very different ways, offer a critique of capitalism which has come adrift from morality.
Both books have narrators who are quite confident that they have seen the truth. In both cases the reader questions this.

I’d recommend both books – though, to be honest, I enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist more as the world it portrayed wasn’t so brutal and its narrator was more engaging – and reading them back-to-back is an interesting exercise in various kinds of comparison.


Tim Stretton said...

With so much to read, all voracious readers must employ some sort of screening programme. Mine, sad to say, involves excluding anything on the Booker shortlist. No doubt this excludes many excellent titles, but also cuts out much "literary fiction", a genre I go to great lengths to avoid.

On the other hand, my screening programme also passports recommendations from good judges to the latter stages of my selection process. And since your track record includes Year of Wonders and Resistance...

Alis said...

Hi Tim - I know what you mean about literary novels and I wouldn't have read either of these if it wasn't for my book group. If you are tempted to go for either of them, I would definitely recommend the Reluctant Fundamentalist - it's not in the league of either of the books you mentioned but both I and my other half (who is as allergic to lit novels as you sound) enjoyed it.

Good luck with the final stages of TLFC by the way!