‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga

2008, 336 p

I suggested this as a read for our bookgroup about three years ago, and it finally arrived! Fortunately I hadn’t read it while I was waiting, so I came to it ‘fresh’ even though it was published in 2008 and won the Booker Prize that same year. It is told in the voice of Balram Halwai, a village boy made good as an ‘entrepreneur’, who writes a series of letters to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Describing himself as a ‘half-baked Indian’, he also sees himself as a White Tiger: “the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation”. Unlike the rest of his family, he takes (and makes) his opportunities to get ahead, and escape the destiny of custom and servitude.

He tells us from the very start that he killed his employer, Ashok, one of two brothers who along with their father, hire him as a driver. Forced to leave school despite his intelligence, Balram takes the opportunity to become the main driver when Ashok, and his American wife Pinky Madam move to Delhi. There Ashok becomes enmeshed in the corruption of political figures. When by p.285 Balram does finally kill his master, we have come to share his disdain for Ashok’s weakness and the dog-eat-dog world in which Balram lives. While the actual murder takes several pages, Balram then makes huge mental leaps over the consequences of the murder, especially for his family. He is completely unrepentant, on several levels.

The most striking image that I took away from the book was that of the ‘rooster coop’ where individuals are hemmed in by their family pressures to stay within that coop, and not even seek to escape. It is a self-imposed structure that keeps workers honest, even against their own interests. This is something that I have thought about when travelling in second or third world countries: why don’t people rob me? Why is it acceptable for me to move through their society so heedlessly, when my spending money for just that day could make a change to their lives?

One of the things that I loved most about this book was Balram’s narrative voice, which leaps off the page. He is a sardonic, self-serving and perceptive humble-bragger and like all good entrepreneurs, he takes you along with the dream, no matter your misgivings. The book is told completely from Balram’s point of view, although the author gets in his own critique of post-colonialism, corruption, loyalty and the deadening effect of the supposedly-extinct caste system. It is never really explained why Balram is writing to Wen Jiabao, except as the head of the rising power within Asia as distinct from the rotting and dying power of the old India.

I enjoyed this book, its structure as a series of letters and the sheer vitality and front of Balram himself. The author Aravind Adiga has had a life nothing like that of Balram, but he says that Balram is a composite of the many men he heard talking while they hanging around drivers’ ranks and train stations, in slums and in servants quarters. The narrative voice is so strong that you feel as if you are hearing it direct, even though it is as much of an artifice as the epistolary structure that Adiga has employed. Still- I don’t think that I have read another book quite like it.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroup.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-30 April 2021

Heather Cox Richardson. Heather Cox Richardson refers to herself as a ‘Lincoln Conservative’ and in this episode of 18th March she explains why. American conservatism had nothing to do with Edmund Burke’s conservatism (which arose out of his horror at the French Revolution). When the slave owners deprecated the new Republican party for being ‘radical’ and wanting to get rid of slavery, Abraham Lincoln claimed to be ‘conservative’ in that he wanted to keep to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, which was silent on slavery and proclaimed the equality of man (albeit, assumed to be white men). She does not use the term ‘conservative’ for today’s Republican party.

Start the Week (BBC) What if the Incas had colonized Europe? features the recently-released book Civilizations by Laurent Binet, which is a counter-factual fictional book that images what would have happened if the Incas and Aztecs had colonized Europe, instead of the other way round. He is joined by two academic historians, Caroline Dodds Pennock, one of the world’s foremost historians of Mesoamerican culture, and Christienna Fryar’s from Goldsmiths, University of London, who focusses on British/Caribbean History. Both historians are fairly relaxed about counter-factual fiction, and have some interesting observations about the new perspectives that what-if history can bring. I really enjoyed Binet’s HHhh, so I’ve put a reservation on this book at the library.

Rear Vision (ABC) I was out doing the weeding with ABC listen on my phone, and a string of Rear Visions floated past. The Suez Canal burst back into our consciousness when it was blocked by that humongous container ship, and The Suez Canal -ambition, colonial greed, revolution and the ditch that reshaped global trade tells the story of the creation of the Suez Canal and its interweaving with French and British colonial politics and Egyptian nationalism. I hadn’t realized that the Egyptians have blocked the Suez Canal in the past, or the broader political implications of the Suez Crisis (which I’m a bit fuzzy about anyway).

Next program was Edward and Harry- the men who left the Royal Family. The program focussed mainly on Edward’s abdication, then finished up by looking or debunking parallels between the two situations.

The Latin American History Podcast. Episode 10 of The Conquest of Mexico follows one of Cortez’s conquistadors, Pedro de Alvarado as he strikes out from Tenochitlan down to Guatamala. He might have been good at fighting, but he lacked the skills to actually establish colonies. Many of the names were unfamiliar here, so I found it a little hard to follow. But- in short, there was lots of killing and betrayal.

Spanish Film Festival 2021: While at War

Based on true events, this is the story of the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno, rector of the University of Salamanca during the first months of Franco’s Nationalist government. Although previously left-leaning, he was disillusioned by the disorder of the Republican government, and he gives increasingly luke-warm support to the Nationalists. But when his friends fall victim to the Nationalists, he changes his mind and takes a stance. Franco is depicted as a rather diffident leader who nonetheless is playing a long game while the war hero Millán-Astray is seen to be driving events and whipping up passions. It made me think about how support for a political party of any persuasion can take you to places and stances beyond your comfort zone, and the line between inconsistency and a considered change of position. I’d never heard of Miguel de Unamuno, or this event – but then again, I’m constantly being confronted with things that I know nothing about!

Although the Spanish Film Festival has now finished in Melbourne, there’s an extra showing of While at War on 16th May at the Kino.

My rating: 8/10

‘One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time’ by Craig Brown

2020, 628 p.

I am a sucker for anything about the Beatles, even though I’m sure that every interview has been reported and combed over and every possible angle explored. Books, documentaries, podcasts – I’ll consume them all. But, enjoyable enough though it was, I really don’t know if the week that it took me to read this huge tome was really well spent.

The book takes a chronological approach, from the earliest days of playing together and goes through to their last performance on the roof of the building in London. It is written as a series of short chapters – 150 of them – some a few pages in length, some only taking up a page.

There are little vignettes that he repeats throughout the text. For example, he writes present-tense descriptions of various parties held over the years that the Beatles were together, where he names who was there, the drugs consumed, the ‘vibe’. As they accumulate, you sense the increasing lack of control as the Beatles and their hangers-on descend into a vortex of jealousy, unhappiness and irresponsibility.

The references are all at the back, and there are many of them, but what is more interesting is the footnotes which become increasingly florid as the book continues. Many of his anecdotes involve unknown people, whose ‘celebrity’ is only revealed in the footnote, and you do get a sense that this is a little microcosm of people who know people.

Some of the chapters are quite quirky- e.g. the list in Chapter 97 of the figures on the cover of Sgt. Peppers (e.g. Dr David Livingston, Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, Lenny Bruce, Stephen Crane the author) and those who were dropped (Mahatma Ghandhi because of pressure from the head of EMI; Leo Gorcey the actor who wanted $400 for his images; and Hitler and Jesus Christ, both requested by John but dropped because too controversial). There are interviews with people who saw his concerts (the Ruby Wax one is really funny), rehashed interviews with the Beatles themselves, and quirky stories. Black and white photographs appear in the chapter to which they apply, which I much prefer to an insert where all the photographs are grouped together. The ending of the book is interesting. He finishes with Brian Epstein, and tells the story backwards, highlighting the many ‘what-if’ paths that could have been taken along the way.

Some of the chapters are autobiographical, where the author talks about his own experience of the Beatles, and his rather dyspeptic current-day excursions to tourist ‘attractions’ in Liverpool. Some chapters are counterfactuals e.g. a chapter where he posits Gerry and the Pacemakers becoming the big thing of the 1960s, with the Beatles just lowly support acts. Other chapters are about things only tangentially related, that occurred at the same time. I must confess that I was hoping for something a little more analytic and dare I say ‘historical’, but this was not the book to bring me either of those things.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-23 April 2021

The Latin American History Podcast. In The Conquest of Mexico Part 9, Max Sarjeant continues the story beyond the usual end point of the Spanish retaking of Tenochtitlan. Even though they had Tenochtitlan under their control, the Spanish troops did not occupy it immediately, preferring to camp at another location not far away (perhaps all that rampant smallpox turned them off a bit). But eventually they moved into Tenochtitlan, destroying most of the temples in order to construct their own buildings on top of them. They then had to build a stable government, while keeping his own troops and the defeated Aztecs happy, while fending off rival conquistadors.

Big Ideas (ABC) During Trump’s presidency, we saw again the craziness of fear, hysteria, and political grandstanding. In Joe McCarthy and the politics of fear, historian Richard Norton Smith talks about the political rise of Joe McCarthy, his fall and his toxic legacy. It’s an interesting podcast- I learned a lot about Joe McCarthy.

In Our Time: Religion. Arianism was an early form of Christianity that believed that the Son of God was not co-eternal (and therefore equal) with God the Father. (Be careful- it’s not Aryanism, which is the belief in white supremacy.) It was quite a common belief amongst early Christians, but during the Council of Nicea in 325 it was declared to be heresy. However, it continued amongst the Goths and Visi-Goths, and still lingers today amongst Unitarians and (yikes!) the Church of the Latter Day Saints. This episode Arianism has three historians contextualizing Arianism within early Christianity and the Eastern and Western Roman Empires.

Not content with listening to one arcane program, I then listened to a previous 2007 In Our Time episode on The Nicene Creed. It was the Nicene Creed that finally marked the end of my mainstream Christianity, when I found myself unable to say even a single sentence with any conviction. This program covered much the same territory as the Arianism one, albeit with different historians, and I must confess that angels dancing on pin heads did come to mind.

Con subtítulos en español: Después de…

This was quite different from the other films that I have seen screened through the Instituto Cervantes. It’s a two-part documentary about the political rift in Spanish society in the 1980s, in the years after the death of Franco and just before the 1981 military coup. The film makers go into the streets and to political rallies, interviewing people – just ordinary people. Actually, it reminded me a bit of America today: a society completely divided, interpreting events in starkly different ways. No wonder there was a coup just after they had finished filming, because the pro-Franco forces, including the Church, were still very prominent. There’s no real plot to it. Instead, it moves from one group to another in a chapter-like format. Interesting as a piece of social and political history.

Escape from Melbourne….

During lockdown, we planned all sorts of little trips. Lockdown finished, but we felt a bit reluctant. Then the BIG lockdown was imposed and that was the end of that. I had some trips back and forth to the Mornington Peninsula in January, then ANOTHER short lockdown. Jeez- you wouldn’t want to book tickets anywhere, we thought.

So when a couple of beautiful days were forecast for the end of April, we decided on the spur of the moment, to desert the cat and go to Mt Macedon to look at the autumn leaves. Most of the places we looked out were booked out, so we spread our net further afield and ended up at Cleveland Winery, in Lancefield.

Beautiful place. We didn’t stay in the old 1880s house (unfortunately) but in the guest suites nearby. We woke up to the sun rising over the mist that clung to the vineyards. Quite beautiful

The sun rising over the vineyards

We were on the hunt for autumn colour, and Forest Glade gardens delivered in spades. I wasn’t aware of using a filter on the photos- I think that they really were this colour. Absolutely spectacular

There was going to be a wedding that afternoon.
The Japanese Garden
The Maple Walk
More of the Japanese Garden
I do like a bit of topiary
The gazebo

It was lovely to get out of Melbourne. And who would have thought that you could get so much pleasure from the paper strap over the toilet suite assuring you that it is sanitized, pillows that are too plump to sleep on, and little dobs of Vegemite in plastic sachets?

The cat wasn’t too happy though.

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Beezus and Ramona’ to ‘Another Brooklyn’

First of May; First Saturday in the month, and so Six Degrees of Separation Day. This meme, hosted on BooksaremyFavouriteandBest involves Kate choosing a book and then participants suggest other books that they have read that spring to mind. You can learn more about it and join in here.

As usual, I haven’t read the starting book which this month is Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary. Haven’t read it: haven’t even heard of it.

But I do know Beverly Cleary from her book Fifteen. When I was probably thirteen or fourteen myself, I borrowed this book again and again from the school library. This is the paperback edition that the school library held. I was surprised to see that it was published in 1956, and so the book itself would have been about 15 years old when I read it. It was a very American boy-meets-girl story, with cheer squads and soda fountains as I remember it. For the purposes of this Six Degrees, it set me off thinking about similar coming-of-age books about adolescent girls that I loved either at the time, or have come to love as an adult. So that’s the theme I’m going to follow

Another book that I loved and reborrowed continually was Dodie Smith´s I Capture the Castle. I really can´t work out why my parents didn´t actually buy the book, given that I had it on almost continual loan! I now have two copies of it, although I haven’t got round to re-reading it. There´s a young girl narrating this story, too, set in England in a decaying castle where she and her older sister become obsessed with the American family who move in next door. (That’s interesting- these were the front covers that I remember, and they’re both Peacock Books, the Penguin Young Adult imprint).

Another book- or rather, series of books – that I became obsessed with probably forty years later was the Neapolitan Quarter, by Elena Ferrante (my review here). I think that Ferrante captures so well the ambivalence of girl-on-girl friendship and the pain of infatuation. I’m not particularly obsessed with who the actual author is, but I really cannot believe that it would be anyone other than a woman. I’ve really enjoyed the television series as well.

Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry (my review here) was her first, highly autobiographical book, with many parallels with her later autobiography that was filmed by Jane Campion as ‘An Angel at My Table.’ This fictional account has an interesting narrative structure, starting off with a description of the Withers family’s straightened circumstances and the tragedy that defined them, then splitting off into three very different narrative threads tracing through the lives of the three children. I read it while I was over in New Zealand a few years back, when I visited Janet Frame’s home town Oamaru, which she fictionalized as Waimaru in this book.

A more recent coming-of-age book is Emily Bitto’s The Strays (my review here). It reminded me a bit of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between or Ian McEwan’s Atonement in that you have an adult narrator, looking back to their adolescence, when they became embroiled in adult betrayal that they didn’t understand at the time. In this case, young Lily, an only child of very quiet, middle class parents, is fascinated by her friend Eva’s artistic family, very reminiscent of the real-life Heide group of artists. I loved the exuberance of the Trentham family- their loudness and transgressiveness- and the mounting tension as you realized that things were not going to end well.

August, the African-American narrator of Another Brooklyn (my review here) has been taken to Brooklyn by her increasingly-religious father, after her mother’s death. At first she is forbidden to leave their flat, and she observes, and later joins, a group of girls. Each of the girls in this group of four friends has to negotiate her own way through parental demands and inadequacies and each has to find her way into adulthood.

So- all fiction this month, and each one of them a coming-of-age story from a young girl’s perspective.

With subtitles in English: Guarani

SBS’ Latin American film festival finishes tonight, and I just finished watching Guarani.

Lots of images of slow water flowing past with trains, boats, cars etc. moving from one side of the screen to the other. The plot, such as it is, is that a young girl has been left with her grandfather and aunts in Paraguay while she moves to Buenos Aires. The young girl accompanies her taciturn grandfather fishing along the Paraná River, while grieving the absence of her mother. The grandfather refuses to speak Spanish, proud of his indigenous Guarani heritage and determined to pass it on. When the mother writes to say that she is pregnant with a baby boy, the grandfather decides that he wants to go to Buenos Aires to bring his daughter home, so that his grandson will be born in Paraguay and can be inculcated into the river-based culture of his family. He and his granddaughter take off for distant Buenos Aires, walking much of it, working on a tobacco farm to earn the money to catch a train, and finally arrive at Buenos Aires. In the end…well, I have no idea what the end meant.

That’s an hour and a half that I have lost forever. Beautiful scenery though.

My rating: 6/10

With subtitles in English: Javier’s Passion

This film will be on SBS On Demand until the end of April. It’s based on the life of the Peruvian poet Javier Heraud who died, aged 21, in Bolivia when leading a group of Cuban-inspired revolutionaries who were returning to Peru to foment revolution there too. He was obviously a brilliant student, who dropped out of law to take up literature, travelled to Russia and Paris, then to Cuba on a scholarship to study Film. It’s beautifully filmed, with subtitles in English (and fairly easy-to-follow Spanish).