Friday, May 01, 2009

Lovable Rogues

I'm glad branched I out from the crime-reading group, although two new groups was not a good idea, given that the current choices are similar. Reading The White Tiger and Q & A still had me wondering if/where the villain would strike next, and how he'd be caught, though, and it gave me a chance to compare two books with 'lovable rogues' as heroes.

Setting's an element important in many detective novels: Edinburgh's back streets trodden by Rebus and Inspector Morse's Oxford pubs and colleges. India, of course, is indispensible to The White Tiger and Q & A, both fuelled by a critique of the continent's corrupt institutions.

The White Tiger is to my mind the better novel , and deserved the Man Booker Prize for 2008 , despite the hype surrounding Slumdog Millionnaire, the film Q & A inspired.

Both books focus on the actions of destitute but perceptive heroes in a corrupt society. Of the two, the narrrator of The White Tiger seems the more authentic voice, although both books are written, inevitably, by authors with no direct experience of the conditions they describe - the horrific orphanage where children are deliberately maimed to turn them into beggars in Q & A, or the cockroach infested sleeping quarters of the driver Balram in The White Tiger ; there's an element of overdramatising in both accounts.

Both coincidentally deliver the same message - that 'luck' doesn't happen, but is 'made', although they arrive at the same conclusion by different methods. Q & A's Ram Mohammad Thomas succeeds in winning the TV Quiz because of the good deeds he has done on his journey ; the killings he commits in the early part of the book are inspired by a wish to protect a woman, and written in a style that absolves him. In The White Tiger the reader is led more insidiously to understand the social pressures that lead to murder; the deed achieves its impact only after we have thoroughly empathised with Balram. Up to this point he's the servant who will get away with what he can but knows his place. He makes his decision fully knowing its implications. He's in the gallery of literature's lovable rogues -lower class heroes which range from Richardson's Tom Jones to TV's Delboy Trotter, but more realistically presented. In fairy tales the poor boy wins the Princess by noble acts, which more or less summarises the plot of Q & A. The White Tiger recognises life's not like that. It makes a more depressing but a more honest read.
The underlying theme of political corruption in a sham democracy are made much more explicit in The White Tiger than in Q & A , of timely relevance. Despite the indescribably squalid conditions, the rigid caste system that underpins it echoes the English class system, with its segregations and barriers.

The White Tiger has its flaws - at times it overdoes the squalor, and the cruelty of the landlord classes , and the narrator's voice seems at times parodic . That said, Balram pleads his cause with with a down-to-earth common-sense that provokes laughter as well as empathy.
One aspect of both books tha disappointed me the focus on the rebel as an individual rather than member of a group, although Gandhi is named reverentially. When Q & A was under discussion someone suggested that perhaps that's the nature of fiction, to foreground the individual, because of the need for a single voice. It's an issue I'll be raising at the next reading group.

Q & A by Vikas Swarup:

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

No comments: