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Recherche littéraire / Literary Research

Automne / Fall 2020


Edited By Marc Maufort

Julie K. Allen, Eugene L. Arva, Jean Bessière, Helena Carválho Buescu, Vanessa Byrnes, Chloé Chaudet, Yves Clavaron, Christophe Den Tandt, Catherine Depretto., Theo D’haen, Caius Dobrescu, Dong Yang, Brahim El Guabli, Nikki Fogle, Gerald Gillespie, Kathleen Gyssels, Oliver Harris, Sándor Hites, Michelle Keown, S Satish Kumar, Jacques Marx, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Jopi Nyman, David O'Donnell, Liedeke Plate, Judith Rauscher, Haun Saussy, Karen-Margrethe Simonsen, Chris Thurman, Anne Williams, Janet M. Wilson, Chantal Zabus, Gang Zhou

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Boom and Bust: The Global Novel of Ireland (2007) and India (2008) (Janet M. Wilson)

Boom and Bust: The Global Novel of Ireland (2007) and India (2008)

Janet M. Wilson

University of Northampton, UK

This article examines the phenomenon of the global novel and its celebration as consecrated through the high prestige award of the Man Booker prize, and so constitutive of an elite global literary culture. It offers a contrastive comparison between two Booker prize-winning novels from the consecutive years of 2007 and 2008. An East-West polarization coincidentally appears in the winners: the Irish novel, The Gathering (2007) by Anne Enright and the Indian novel, The White Tiger (2008) by Aravind Adiga. Both are publications from decolonized nations and can be linked to familiar stereotypes of national economic expansion, the new or “shining” India and the Irish Celtic Tiger, at a moment when the economic boom of neoliberal globalization had peaked and before the spectacular collapse of the Irish economy in particular, in 2008. They share prizewinning assets of fictional innovativeness, social relevance and high consumer appeal at a time when networks of global capital had consolidated and transformed the neoliberal economies of their societies. Together they speak for an era that witnesses the radical decline of the West and a corresponding rise of economies in the East.

As novels from postcolonial nations informed by the new world order of global capitalism, their preoccupation with the marginal, underrepresented figure usually associated with postcolonial paradigms of injustice and inequality distances them from euphoric celebrations of economic prosperity, or the new forms of self-empowerment as appears in American novels like De Lillo’s Cosmopolis or Underworld. Enright’s novel returns to the Ireland of the 1960s, and is about family dysfunction, death and mourning, while Adiga’s ironic portrait of the new shining India, presents the extremes of poverty and wealth in the economic boom ←97 | 98→as mobilizing a rapacious, self-serving opportunism. Despite the hint in his title of a rising economy with connotations of “unstoppable economic growth” (Mendes 277), Adiga’s win was controversial in India where his novel was read as an “unglamorous portrait of the nation’s economic miracle” (Jeffries n.p.), and seen more as “a guide to Dark India” (Ghoshal n.p.). Enright’s The Gathering, by contrast, approaches the Celtic Tiger, looking “awry” (Schwall 594) in Zizek’s terms, and is part of an expanding literature in Ireland on trauma, memory and mourning, suggesting that economic growth was encouraging a return to explore what Joyce called the nightmare of Irish history. Despite the optimism following the Good Friday Agreement and the unprecedented prosperity of the boom years, the collective experiences of pain and suffering due to historical injustice and cultural loss still needed to gain symbolic representation before these political and economic successes could be celebrated (Gibbons 95, 99).

The novels are contrasting fictional types, both in terms of gender, and generically, thematically and aesthetically, and they paradoxically subvert East-West cultural stereotypes: one about a psychological crisis due to child abuse, the other a savage satire on the New India. The White Tiger denotes the cult of individualism, entrepreneurialism, and family exclusion that is more usually associated with break-through works in western fiction like Robinson Crusoe, while The Gathering, referring to a collectivity, the coming together of family, and reinforcement of blood ties, is more reminiscent of earlier Indian novels like those by Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry and Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things. As their titles imply, they share a preoccupation with the family unit, represented as a microcosm of the figure of the national body / family. The crisis of legitimation in the family’s role and function that they present can be read as metonymic of the nation, through the prism of a national allegory in The Gathering, and by an elaborate fabulist metaphorical conceit in The White Tiger. Both approach this through first-person narrators, in modes of fictional psychobiography (Enright) and pseudobiography (Adiga), speaking from outside or in conflict with social systems of representation in which oppression of gender, religion and class / caste has been perpetuated across generations. Their narrative trajectories develop from abject positions of subjugation and subordination towards greater autonomy and self-agency facilitated by the more empowering self-imaginings available in the new consumer culture; and their protagonists overcome their fraught legacies to acquire ←98 | 99→greater autonomy and self-agency, whether this culminates in alienated self-promotion (Adiga) or renewed embrace of self and others (Enright).

These contrasts and The White Tiger’s place in a pantheon of its own making in its break from previous Indian writing in English, as critics and reviewers have noted, can also be traced through a prototype of world literature, familiar in the Booker prize-winning system1: this features a trauma and recovery story with magico-realist elements involving abuse and family dysfunction that arrives at resolution by the invocation of spiritual or holistic verities (Menand 139). Enright’s novel best fits this paradigm through a “holistic” cure rather than the mystical or exotic. Adiga’s novel, however, adopts the structure of trauma and recovery, abuse and family dysfunction, breaking with this paradigm just as it does with other conventions of fiction, adapting the beast fable and narrative voice to an innovative construction of entrepreneurial selfhood, and presenting for global consumption elements of India’s economic rise as self-styled unholy and “unholistic” verities. In this too the novels undermine simplistic East / West dichotomies, in that Enright’s focus on the inner life and holistic cure is reminiscent of eastern writing whereas Adiga’s break from family and literary tradition is more usually associated with western-style capitalism. The White Tiger resonates with other self-help, entrepreneurial novels such as Vikas Swarup’s Q&A (2005) and Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) that represent a “development of cosmopolitan reflexivity” and deliberately subvert western readers’ expectations of South Asian fiction being about postcolonial victimhood and injustice (Tickell 155).

In acknowledging the differentiated and unequal spread of the global economy, as identified by Neil Lazarus, this article aims to construct a dialogue between these dissimilar novels to suggest the synchronicity of underlying preoccupations in eastern and western cultural production when poised on the crest of the economic wave, and differences in their fictional treatment. Its orientation comes from Fredric Jameson’s argument, that one impact of combined unevenness in the global economy is that of “a mode of production still locked in conflict with traces of the older mode” (Lazarus 40, citing Jameson “Magic Realism” 311) – tensions that can be traced in the novels’ postcolonial and global frameworks. In providing a literary comparison / contrast it aims to examine the ←99 | 100→impact of modernity’s inheritance by identifying the authors’ revisionist approach to national images and symbols that have centred the family unit in the national imaginary in terms of “the concrete situations from which such texts spring and to which they constitute distinct responses” (Lazarus 40, citing Jameson “Third-World Literature” 86–87 n5).

The East-West differences of the global economic reforms, finance capital and commodity markets inform the novels’ contrasting orientations to the burgeoning culture of consumerism and commodification in the 1990s and 2000s. In India local economies opened up to global market forces through deindustrialization and land speculation, dispossessing marginalized communities and widening the division between traditional, agrarian modes of production and modern, IT-based ones (Mirza xxi). The beneficiaries of official economic liberalization in 1991 were the rapidly expanding urban middle classes. The White Tiger’s division between Darkness and Light is a schematic response to restructured “neoliberal economic policies which adversely affected the economic interest of poor and marginal sections of the population” (Sahoo 2) that were denied upward mobility, displaced through urban migration and subject to precarious working conditions. The Irish economic transformation, by contrast, saw Ireland as a successor state whose postcolonial dream was betrayed by the failure to deliver modernization, because the implementation of the neocolonial bourgeois project brought a utopian world, but only limited change in entrenched cultural and social realities. Unlike the burgeoning IT industry of Bangalore celebrated in The White Tiger, in which global economic forces led to overheated expansion in the construction sector, poorly regulated finance markets and heightened consumerism, Ireland’s sense of global empowerment was more ambiguous; metropolitan ascendancy and celebration was also backward looking, amplifying the national heritage rather than purely springing from a new industry, and Enright’s The Gathering points to a transitional stage of Irish nationalism still marked by postcolonial victimhood.

These different types of economic emergence and their eastern and western cultural frameworks can be traced further in the contrasting identities, orientations and voices of the novel’s narrators, and their problematizing of fiction’s relationship to reality. Adiga’s narrator, Balram Halwai, masquerading as his murdered employer, Ashok Sharma, embodies the new spirit of consumerism, fast capital growth, and cheap credit. The novel opens with the announcement of his arrival in Bangalore, new centre of the IT world as ‘ “The White Tiger’/ A Thinking Man / And ←100 | 101→an entrepreneur” (Adiga 1), and a vision of progress commonly associated with the “savage” phase of western capitalism and expansion. Enright’s narrator, traumatized at the news of her brother Liam’s suicide, which she traces to sexual abuse that she may have witnessed as a child, is positioned as though at the limit of symbolic power; she can only speak about it but lacks the right words or certainty of its existence: “I feel it roaring inside me – this thing that may not have taken place” (Enright 1).2 Her name, Veronica, invokes the woman who caught the vera icon, the true image of Christ, a meaning that is reflected in her urge to tell the “true history” (Ewins) of her brother, and the hint of resurrection in her forgiveness at the end; the novel’s Christian symbolism, extending to details such as Veronica’s coming from a family of 12 children, conveys a past-oriented world-view anchored in the belief and ritual of an earlier era, values that in The White Tiger are dismissed as backward and irrelevant (Nandi 165).

The narrators embody a differentiated relationship between power, voice and identity. Balram / Ashok projects the post-millennial ascendancy of the entrepreneur, claiming “I am tomorrow” (Adiga 6), and equating his story to that of the city: “If anyone knows the truth about Bangalore it’s me” (4). Enright’s narrator, by contrast, compromised by her suppressed memory and traumatized about what happened in her grandmother’s house when she was eight or nine, struggles with the problem of representation and speech: “I do not know the truth or I do not know how to tell the truth. All I have are stories” (Enright 2). Veronica’s trajectory from outside history is to override the fictions she tells herself, to remember, and face the truth, but Balram’s insistence on a singular truth argues that in impersonating his murdered employer, he has also appropriated the project of history as his own. In these contrastive representations the novels again complicate and blur any easy distinction between East and West: Adiga’s narrator has the thrusting determination and confident self-invention to launch the entrepreneur’s narrative of “new” India with a recognition of global history, whereas Enright’s backward-looking narrator, steeped in neurosis and melancholia, reflects the problematic of (post)colonial Ireland, one that blurs the lines between eastern spiritualism and western capitalism, of a nation that has not yet come to terms with its burden of history.

←101 | 102→

The “New India” and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger

Written from the point of view of Balram Halwai, a despised and ridiculed subaltern, who becomes the chauffeur for the son of a wealthy corrupt landowner, The White Tiger tells of Balram’s ascendancy due to cleverness, cunning and amorality. The sociohistorical concept of the subaltern caste based on stereotypes of illiteracy, willing servitude and lack of privacy is overturned in the complex reconfiguring of selfhood and projection of a naked ambition that underlines his decision to kill his employer, Ashok Sharma, steal his money, assume his name and enter the global economy of Bangalore, “the world’s centre of technology and outsourcing” (Adiga 3).

Balram’s changing attitude towards his own family and scepticism about the concept of the Indian family as a fulcrum of national identity, are inextricable from his ambition to overcome his subaltern status and reinvent himself as an entrepreneur. The novel, a form of bildungsroman, consists of a retrospective narration spoken in the appropriated voice of his murdered employer, Ashok, looking back on his younger self, and it reconstructs his impoverished upbringing in Laxmanargh, a village in Bihar near the Ganges, and employment as domestic servant first in the landlord’s house in Dhanbad and then as sole servant and chauffeur to the landlord’s son Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam in Gurgaon, a satellite commuter town in Delhi. These social and geographical transitions are reinforced by the namings and renamings of the child known anonymously as Munna (meaning boy) – for the subaltern identity is only instrumental in the fiction (Nandi 154) – and then as Balram and Ashok: these comprise the composite narrative voice.3 The novel’s enunciative framework consists of an address to the Chinese Premier, Jiabao Wen, who is planning to visit Bangalore and meet Indian ←102 | 103→entrepreneurs, adapted from the epistolary novel in the form of seven email letters over seven chapters – a semi-confessional monologue. From the outset then the narrative voice is positioned through the protagonist’s discursive representation in the Indian class / caste system, in ways that represent his subjugation, then anger and violence at the imprisoning inequalities of global growth. In the novel’s present moment as fake narrator, and urbane entrepreneur, Ashok, he poses as worldly authority on India’s place in the wider world, introducing into the email conversation with Jiabao Wen topics such as East-West relations, Chinese-Indian economic power, and global politics.

Ashok’s alias Balram’s retrospective narration produces an “unrelentingly negative” (Tickell 157) portrait of his family attributable to his harsh upbringing. His abject alienation and disaffection in response to social inequality and political corruption and his embrace of consumerist ideology are conflated with the loss of both parents early on, in a savage satire of Indian / Hindu mythology concerning death and burial and the Indian medical system. Witnessing his mother’s funeral pyre in the Ganges is recalled as the child Munna, in a mixture of disgust at the circumstances and empathy for his deceased mother, an affective moment rhetorically signaled by the proximity of the speaking voice of Ashok / Balram to that of the experiencing subject (Nandi 165); this is contrasted with his father’s expiry from TB on the hospital floor in an exposé of national neglect of the health of the indigent classes. The child’s abandonment to the clutches of his mercenary grandmother Kusum reinforces this grim portrait of family duties whereby children are exploited for their labour and marriageability, and “domestic employment [is] construed as a qualified form of kinship” (Tickell 160); Balram’s servant status incurs financial remittances, return visits, and responsibility for his dependent nephew. These multiple family obligations due to extreme poverty, ill health and death, can be correlated to Adiga’s claim that his novel aims to “highlight the brutal injustices of society”: such as limited health care in underdeveloped states like Bihar, poor Indians’ fear of tuberculosis, and the fact that “family ties get broken or at least stretched when cities like Bangalore draw people from the villages” (Jeffries n.p.). Again the East-West fictional stereotype is subverted, for Adiga’s hero is comparable to the prototypical western capitalist colonizer-fortune seeker who begins in abject poverty with no prospects and abandons family ties to follow his destiny in the wider world, a trope found in western genres such as the ←103 | 104→“Robinsade,” Victorian novels like Great Expectations and the Australian convict novel.

These socio-realist contexts and the novel’s innovative realism in depicting the newly impoverished state of India’s global economic growth, for which it has been praised (see Anjaria; Lochner), however, require some reconciliation with the tropes of dynamic self-invention that mark Balram’s reconfiguration of the family unit: this appears in the techniques of transformative parody, caricature and performance of his subjugated and triumphalist identities in the metamorphosis from abject servant, evident in appellations such as Country-Mouse or “village idiot” (Adiga 130) to the killer, imaged by the White Tiger. This comparison of the representation of the family in The White Tiger with Enright’s depiction of family dysfunction in The Gathering, which can be read as a national allegory, turns to Adiga’s representational strategies that suggest a framing of the family unit as metonymic, rather than allegorical, of the life of the nation.4 Balram’s decision to turn against his own class, emulate his masters, and sacrifice his family to his ambition, one moral pivot on which the novel turns, is implemented through the narrative device of the political beast fable. In this “discursive paradigm of subaltern emancipation” (Detmers 542) from poverty by overturning the master-slave relationship, Adiga’s satire expands into a full blown caricature of the subaltern as a symbol of dumb passivity, and so dispensable in the entrepreneurial new order, just like his employer.

Balram’s early parental loss and the unremitting cruelty of his grandmother sets up his conflict with a family hierarchical system represented as an inextricable part of and indeed a justification for national class / caste oppression. The novel’s satire on the global economy and its privileging of a monetary system argues that the Indian nation state and the family are alike in being governed by economic principles; in Balram’s solipsistic logic the incentive of individual financial gain, devoid of human consideration, makes them interchangeable. The ruling metaphor ←104 | 105→that carries the emotional and symbolic weight of this vision and marks the flowering of Balram’s ambition is the Rooster Coop, a centralized social system of subaltern entrapment – a coop of tightly packed hens and roosters awaiting slaughter. Framed by the novel’s manichean binary of Darkness and Light that figures the rich-poor divide, this human killing process images Balram’s destiny in terms of the eponymous White Tiger image. Initially conferred upon Munna / Balram by a school inspector for being “intelligent” and “honest” (Adiga 35), and animated by shifting signifiers, the White Tiger moniker connotes uniqueness and rarity as it appears “only once in a generation” (Adiga 177). In Indian mythology the tiger is associated with Durga, the goddess of wrath (Nandi 162), but western values of aggressive individuality also appear, marking Balram’s aspirations to become a cosmopolitan entrepreneur.

Balram’s dystopic vision of “The Great Indian Rooster Coop” depicts those who live in Darkness as passively enduring enforced servitude and enslavement to a killing machine: “They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they are next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop” (Adiga 173). The grounds of the entrapment metaphor, Balram’s master blow at Indian nationalism, is the family: “the Indian family is the reason we are – tied to the coop” (176). The sacrifice of family becomes part of his act of self-emancipation, so aligning him with the “grinning young butcher” (173), bloody-handed and conscience-free, because the man who wishes to break out of the coop “is prepared to see his family destroyed – hunted, beaten, and burnt alive by the masters.” In acclaiming the White Tiger as the “freak, a pervert of nature” who in “the story of the social entrepreneur” can do this deed (176–77), Balram resignifies his self-image as a cold-blooded, villainous assassin.

The consequences of murdering Ashok Sharma – the likely death of Balram’s entire family as reprisal – are never verified, for Balram is unable to read a report of the slaughter of a family of 17 in a village north of the Ganges. They never reach the status of connected narrative as attested by the fractured temporality in his conversations with Premier Jiabao Wen (Anjaria 117–18) and hints of an impending doom – but can be inferred by his self labelling as “a virtual mass murderer” (Adiga 45), and his refusal to “watch Hindi films – on principle” (Adiga 8, 313). The Christian moral framework of The Gathering and Veronica’s initial inability to tell her story, or any story, is both counterpoint to and echo of Balram’s attitude to his performance of entrepreneurship, for Veronica’s ←105 | 106→turning point comes in recognizing that invention is in fact avoidance – her traumatized state requires the telling of the right story in order to heal and recover her life. Such distinctions are suppressed in Balram’s version: the account of how his family met their fate is one that cannot be told, although as his narrative unravels he becomes uncertain: “I cannot be certain the story, as I will tell it, is the right story to tell” (Adiga 113). Instead in a confirmatory celebration of his new “bestiality,” Balram commodifies the White Tiger image as the name of his taxi company in Bangalore, “The White Tigers.” In this final resignification into a symbol of financial success, the label speaks for his performance in a new representative structure that allows him to distance himself symbolically but not emotionally from the consequences of his ambition.

In this representation of Balram’s symbolic excision of the family from the national imaginary in a way that audaciously challenges moral propriety and social orthodoxy Adiga also creates readerly undecidability. His satire of a social system that invisibilizes the subaltern, juxtaposed to Balram’s transformation into a killer who condemns that very victimized subaltern class in order to escape it, can be approached through a reading based on the model of the postcolonial picaresque novel proposed by Jens Elze. Stemming from Don Quixote and other eighteenth century types, the postcolonial genre’s narrative paradigm is a first person episodic life story overlaid by a panoramic view of the society through which the protagonist travels, opening up the question of whether events can be attributed to a personal pathology – “the truth of facts” as experienced by the protagonist or “the truth of social pressures and conventions” which he aims to expose – in ways that create readerly “precarious undecidability” (Elze 151–52). The White Tiger conforms to this genre with its enunciative framework that resembles a confessional or testimonial that “addresses an authority to state a case or a criminal offence” (Elze 148); in other words the address to the Chinese premier Jiabo Wen, is by proxy positioning the reader to judge whether Balram’s “morally despicable action” is “a legitimate consequence of the vulgar conventions of reality” (Elze 152) or not. The reader is implicitly invited to evaluate the pervasive injustice and violence of the global economic system in its indifference to human suffering against Balram’s act of double betrayal in his willingness to sacrifice his family following his crime of murder.

Juxtaposing the potency of the White Tiger image in Balram’s subjectivity are sights of collective dispossession, futility and poverty that fuel his disgust and anger. The same Light and Darkness disparities of ←106 | 107→the urban-rural worlds are reproduced within the city space of Delhi, as the global division of labour and class / caste constructs the third world within the first world, making the city “a synecdoche for a nation divided by capital” (Detmers 538), for “Delhi is the capital of not one but two countries – two Indias. The Light and the Darkness both flow into Delhi” (Adiga 251). At one extreme are the air-conditioned cars, imaged as eggs, which glide around, bearing their wealthy owners hermetically insulated. At the other, as Balram sees from the car window, are “[t]hose poor bastards [who] had come from the Darkness to Delhi to find some light – but they were still in the darkness” (Adiga 138). A narrative temporal and spatial thickening provides a chronotope of the car-as-egg as Balram has an epiphany while driving his master’s Honda City:

We were like two separate cities inside and outside the dark egg. I knew I was in the right city, But my father, if he were alive, would be sitting on that pavement, cooking some rice gruel for dinner, and getting ready to lie down and sleep under a streetlamp and I couldn’t stop thinking of that, and recognizing his features in some beggar out there, So I was in some way out of the car too, even while I was driving it.

(Adiga 138)

By linking his vantage point from inside the egg-car to his father (now deceased), evoking an uncanny sense of being in both worlds and time zones simultaneously, Balram perceives the one degree of separation the car affords him from the Darkness from which he has come; while reinscribing himself into the system from which he wishes to escapes.

Parallels between Enright’s and Adiga’s novels appear in these images of mechanization that stress the characters’ transitional positioning between dual temporalities and spatialities, and situate them outside domestic domains. In driving his employer Ashoka and his wife Pinky Madam, Balram’s doubled perception fosters his transgressive ambition to overcome the division between these spheres and escape the Darkness. In The Gathering Veronica’s car, a Saab 9.3, is both a mode of transport and a protective shell; an extension of herself as she drives around during the night, after hearing of her brother’s death, becoming estranged from her own family, it is a “tin coffin” in which to enact her despair in an alternative kind of intimacy, in which the organic and inorganic intertwine as “the embodied female self is enmeshed in the machine” (Bracken 186): “I am hanging onto the steering wheel, with my mouth wide open. We stay locked together like this for a while, me and the ←107 | 108→car” (Enright 29). The car also seemingly acquires a life of its own, taking her away from home and out of present time into memory, as she drives to the asylum in Portrane she had earlier visited with her grandmother where her uncle was a patient, and to the airport where she flies to Gatwick, symbolizing her temporary escape from Ireland. In these ways it facilitates her transition from disembodied alienation and dislocation to a more local and situated state. As protection and source of the reidentifying / resignifying process that allows her to recover from the tyranny of the past and “generate the production of something more positive and productive” (Bracken 194), the Saab is comparable to the Honda imaged as an egg, inspiring Balram’s vision of being both inside and out of time and space / place as the exceptional subject. In both novels the car is the symbol of mobility producing “subjective experiences of space and time as nomadic movement and journeying” (194), needed for differentiations and redefinitions of self in ways not possible through existing social and domestic frameworks.

Adiga’s satiric attack on the current mythification of India as the shining nation of global order extends to the nation’s sacred value systems. The systematic undermining of the mythic structure of Indian nationalistic rhetoric first emanates from his mother’s death, Balram’s witnessing of her funeral pyre in the Ganges, and subsequent deconstruction of the national mystique of the Mother Ganga, protector of the Nation as “the river of emancipation” (15). The “real god of Benares” is not purifying water but the mud “into which everything died and decomposed and was reborn from, and died again. […] Nothing would get me liberated here” (17). Likewise the ironic celebration of Indian family as the “repository of love and sacrifice, pride and glory of the nation” (Adiga 176) is overturned in Balram’s portrait of the self-serving, manipulative tactics of his granny, Kusum, likened to the “fierce and black skinned” goddess Kali (Adiga 135), appearing in magnetic stickers on the Honda City’s dashboard (132) – the car he drives, and by extension a desacralized myth of the motherland, which, according to Nandi, is “corrupt backward, cruel and verging on the bestial” (159). The myth of Independence is not about the birth of the nation, but when “jungle law replaced zoo law” and those with “Big Bellies” rose up against the “Small Bellies,” in an anti-myth that reinforces Balram’s jungle philosophy of “eat or get eaten up” (Adiga 63–64). The novel’s renunciation of national myths involves a deliberate displacement of the national imaginary and reconfiguring it into the global imaginary dominated by the consumer society and his ←108 | 109→entrepreneurial cult of ruthless individualism and mercenary self-interest. Whether this erasure of all that is valued in the national mythology can be justified by Balram’s powers of invention and promotion of a new global order, is a significant aspect of reader undecidability.

Ireland and Anne Enright’s The Gathering

In The Gathering the new freedoms and opportunities of globalization – as in electronic communication, financial expansion, consumerism – are just one context for the novel’s domestic tragedy. The family crisis is set in motion by the suicide of Liam, the heroine’s younger brother, and this opens her eyes to the sex abuse he suffered as a child. Veronica’s trauma on hearing of her brother’s death and considering its causes, catalyses her search into her family’s past, to a time when Catholicism still ruled in Irish society: she returns to the 1960s when she was growing up, and beyond that to the 1920s and 30s, the era of her grandparents and mother. In the background are the 1990s “revelations of child abuse in orphanages, and by the Catholic clergy, scandals within the Catholic Church, high level corruption in business and political circles” (Gibbons 99); general amnesia about the abuse of minors and other vulnerable groups pointing to clerical dysfunction and cover ups as well as child abuse in domestic spaces. These revelations, and other features of the Celtic Tiger that internationalized Ireland’s world view – increased immigration, the extension of finance capital, commodity markets, and the burgeoning local economy – are alluded to obliquely. Paradoxically, however, they contribute to the heroine’s forward momentum, by offering new possibilities for self-imagining.

The novel is about the unreliability of memory, representation and history – in the sense of not knowing and being unfamiliar with events, yet the need to recover the facts. The symptoms of trauma – the experience of inner stress, muteness, of inability to speak about or even confirm the abuse she witnessed – set out the trajectory of the novel: to recover knowledge of what she witnessed from her unreliable memories; that is, of abuse of her brother in her grandmother’s house in 1968 where the children stayed for a year, by the owner, Nugent Lambert, who came every Friday to collect the rent. Although not sexually abused herself Veronica displays all the symptoms of the traumatized hysterical subject and can only recover her memory by trying to reconstruct the lives of her grandparents, the source of the family tragedy. From these perspectives, ←109 | 110→the novel stands in polar opposition to The White Tiger. Her comment, “I don’t even know what name to put on it” (Enright 1), for example, contrasts to the plural naming strategies to label the new reality set in place by Adiga’s anti-hero to represent his transition from Darkness into Light.

Enright’s work, like that of other Irish novelists like Mary Morrissey, Desmond Hogan and Colm Toibin, has been described as postnationalist because it poses a challenge to the restrictive images of gender and sex associated with traditional nationalism (Gibbons 90; Ryan 166). She is seen as rewriting a new position and identity for Irish women, as many assumptions and stereotypes of Irish nationalism were being questioned at a time when the depressed economy transformed into relative prosperity; this intervention into national mythologies and the congruence of her novel’s thematics with national concerns, enables it to be read as a national allegory of Ireland representing the vicissitudes of economic globalization. This is captured in an uneasy “high maintenance” (Enright 36) atmosphere, just before the crash, filled with moments of comprehension and foreboding. The present is revealed as a fragile and precarious state.

Veronica’s process of working through her traumatized reaction to her brother’s suicide involves a reconstruction of her entire life; for exploring sexual trauma inevitably summons up the archaic trauma of the subject’s being which in Lacanian terms is “the ‘truth’ of the unconscious” (Gardam 100). She questions her identity, now seen as a lack, a fabrication, in contrast to Balram’s acquisition and performance of a new persona: “I realised that until now I had been living my life in inverted commas” in a lifetime of “false intensities” (Enright 181, 120). At the time she had witnessed without understanding the abuse; then “the world around us changed,” and the public reaction in the media helped her to register it: “I would never have made that shift on my own – if I hadn’t been listening to the radio and reading the paper, and hearing what went on in schools and churches and people’s homes” (173).

Matthew Ryan, in his reading of the novel, sees that Enright’s narrator, as a subject in crisis, represents the cultural social phenomenon that conditions the way people symbolically construct meaning as affected by the social conditions of globalization; he sees the problem of reconfiguring the self in The Gathering as represented by the tension between the two forces of the Celtic Tiger: the global drive that disembodies and alienates, and the local desire to embody and situate (166–68). Such a tension can ←110 | 111→be seen as reflective of Veronica’s attempts to fix meaning for although tempted in telling Liam’s story by “the romantic place” of history, before he was born, history keeps “sliding around in my head” (Enright 13). The moment she arbitrarily fixed on – when Lamb Nugent first saw her grandmother, Ada Merriman, in 1925 in a hotel foyer – turns out to be false. It also explains how she finds that “my mind is subject to jolts and lapses” (Enright 39). The transition to a more centred state is symbolically referenced in the novel’s conclusion, where she speaks from outside the national space in the anonymity of Gatwick airport, as though she is now earthed: “I feel like I have spent the last five months up in the air” (Enright 261).

Although the novel’s setting is redolent of the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger era, the new gods of neoliberal globalization, consumerism and rapid wealth that mobilize the entrepreneurial ambition of Balram / Ashok in The White Tiger have little appeal for Veronica Hegarty: as a middle-class 39-year-old mother-of-two married to a man from the world of corporate finance who “moves money around, electronically” (18), her inner crisis is only magnified by the habits of consumerism, which make her “suddenly aware of the poor, starving and marginal, and hence the impossible situation of Liam” (Enright 190). Shopping and spending become painful reminders of her family and especially of her mother who is not consumer-minded enough to enjoy the cashmere scarf she buys her. Yet at the novel’s end, consumerism plays a part in her rediscovered life, imparting agency and freedom. Objects, possessions, and consumables become materially valued, as they are now emptied of connotations of trauma and symptomatic of her recovery. They rename her as an affluent subject as she calculates she can trade in the Saab, dreams of buying her grandmother’s house and selling it on at twice the price (Enright 238), and buys her daughters flipflops at Accessorize at Gatwick airport. Such ambivalence about the consumer society illustrates the mixed responses to the boom years in early twenty-first century Ireland, often represented as a collapsed Slave-Master paradigm: a “narrative of dystopian malcontent,” a “brutalizing and alienating system” forcing abandonment of traditional values, alternating with an “irenic utopianism” in which the citizen becomes the self-empowered consumer with entitlements, desires and agency (Cronin 81–82).

The crisis of family legitimacy that marks both novels’ intervention into the sphere of cultural representation and reconfiguring in order to shape a more globally inflected national imaginary appears in their ←111 | 112→similar representations of precarious, struggling and impoverished family life: the paradigms emerging from Irish Catholicism set against those of Hindu ritual and caste. In both novels children are unrecognized or ignored, invisible due to overcrowding and because “children were of little account” (Enright 256). Veronica’s trauma retrospectively diminishes the parent-child relationship due to feelings of nothingness and perception of her mother as being absent after her father’s death, and of not looking after her brother when he needed her; Balram’s indistinctness in The White Tiger is symbolized by his name, Munna: he is an orphan in a world where monetary concerns matter more than children and the “water buffalo,” a vital source of income, is revered as household “dictator” (Adiga 20). In The Gathering family dysfunction can be traced to Veronica’s grandmother’s impecuniousness, and in the present excessive physical proximity, claustrophobic intimacy due to indiscriminate breeding and crowding with large families and children doubling in the same beds, feelings that become too intense, or even illicit sex, for in the 1920s “people were mixed up together in the most disgusting ways” (Enright 35). The feelings of love are too often contaminated because of these confusing relations and Veronica is unable to separate love from hate in thinking about those she is closest to: her husband and mother. In her uncertainty of memory, however, misjudgments about family cohesiveness and ties allow for reconciliation by contrast to Balram’s calculations about his family’s likely obliteration, leaving him with no possibility for reversal, memory or remorse.

For post-Celtic Tiger readers of The Gathering, the behaviours of sexual excess and too many children, lack of regulation with no birth control, domestic mismanagement and cover-up in the domestic realm suggestively parallel the excesses that occur later in the macro-realm, the economic crash in Ireland in which indiscriminate treatment similarly renders people faceless: that is, the revelations of different kinds of abuse exposed in the novel, due to unchecked behaviour, are analogous to the boom-time’s consumer overspending, excessive consumption, unregulated borrowing, production of excess surplus to requirements or measure of need, that brought unprecedented Irish prosperity to an end. In this sense the novel can be read as a national allegory of the rise and then the implosion of the Irish financial / economic system, according to Jameson’s use of the term, that “the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society” (“Third World Literature” 69). The link ←112 | 113→between dysfunctional families and the dysfunctional nation can further be traced to a history of malpractice. Veronica’s grandparents became locked into a financial system of rental debt and payment in which child abuse occurred in their relationship of dependency, as Nugent Lambert’s financial control over them affected children and grand-children, while those who should have known better allowed it to happen. Parallels in the global financial crisis appear in the underdeveloped public financial management and anti-corruption systems in Ireland prior to the 2008 crash and the banking scandals that followed.

National and Global Imaginaries

In their revaluing of the role of the precarious family unit in pre-crash society, imaged as a financial system to which its members are beholden, both novels register the impact of consumerism and the global economy on the national imaginary; these involve transgression or relocation of national boundaries in terms of global diasporas, and a reframing of national myths and stereotypes of nationhood. Adiga’s bestial metaphors show displacement and distortion of the Indian family’s place in relation to the anti-hero’s murder for personal gain, and subsequent obliterating of the family from the symbolic imaginary; his murderous intent extends to his nephew, the only family member left, in order to guard his secret. Enright’s reassessment is effected through a national allegory that correlates the narrative of Catholicism pluralism, breeding and mismanagement to the mishandling and excesses of the Celtic Tiger boom that ended in 2008. By contrast Balram’s fixation on the shrine of Bangalore and worship of the false god of mammon is local and global, a monocular realignment by contrast to the principle of unity in multiplicity dominating the nation’s spiritual and secular mythologies. Included in the recalibration of national and global imaginaries is the presence of the outsider, the familiar stranger, reflecting the greater mobility in the global economy of diasporic subjects and transnational travellers. In The White Tiger, Ashok, Balram’s master, is an NRI (non-resident Indian) neoliberal returnee, floundering in the corrupt circles of Delhi, dominated by his family and out of control as seen in his wife Pinky Madam’s abrupt departure to the USA. Ashok’s disorientation and misunderstanding of the metropolis includes Balram himself whom he sentimentally mistakes for a simple country fool and to whom he shows empathy, making Balram’s ruthless murder all the more inhumane. As ←113 | 114→Nandi notes, the narrative can be read as a diasporic one, comparable to Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness (1962), and it reflects Adiga’s own position as a returnee (159). In The Gathering the Irish diaspora appears in the family reunion for Liam’s wake with returnees from scattered destinations – North America, London, Europe, South America – and the valorizing of an expanded and dispersed family network boosted by renewed connectivity to rural Ireland – one brother will stay on to buy a farm – and a new inclusivity as Liam’s previously unknown illegitimate son joins the gathering. Enright’s expansion of the family entity reflects Veronica’s healing, and with the hint of her own pregnancy, her move from grief to restoration and reconciliation.

In both novels reconfiguration of the family unit involves reassessing national stereotypes of belonging, constructed from a fusion of ideas of motherhood, maternity and the stereotype of national sovereignty imaged as the mother of the nation: both the earth figures of Mother India and of Ireland, whether the nationalist romantic ideal of the virgin soil of the green isles, or Yeats’s Mother Ireland, or more recently suffering Mother Ireland. The implied undermining or erasure of these symbolic roles in order to acknowledge a global ascendancy is traceable to diminished mothering roles in the text and the protagonists’ suffering at the preconscious level of the loss of the mother, through death in Balram’s case or vagueness as with Veronica’s mother: “so absent- minded she was absent altogether” (Enright 213). Overwhelmed by bearing too many children, lost in the weight of domestic duty and providing minimal care, sustenance and parenting, she is associated with Veronica’s feelings of nothingness: “If only she could become visible. […] But she remains hazy, unhittable” (Enright 5).

Further entrenching the portraits of family confusion and destruction, and cause of present day unhappiness are the protagonists’ grandmothers, who are locked into earlier patriarchal and colonial power structures, imparting a negative legacy of collusion, tyranny or apathy. Both act dysfunctionally in loco parentis providing neither protection nor love. Veronica’s grandmother Ada is the source of the family’s trauma – remembered by Veronica as if in a snapshot watching and doing nothing, as if she knew about the family abuse, but took no steps to prevent it. Balram demonizes his granny Kusum as a witch, an exploitative despot, autocratic and self-serving in her deference to political and social powers and naked in her greed; she is a grotesque anti-maternal image in her obsession with the finances ←114 | 115→of arranged marriages, remittances, and emotional blackmail; but her likeness to Balram indicates that though he has emptied out and re-purposed abusive family structures, the powerful female figures are not completely cut off, as anxieties about his past deeds discernible in present-day interruptions in his discourse indicate. In both novels, these tainted maternal genealogies militate against the traditional female mythological figures associated with national cohesiveness replacing them with images of greater individual mobility and spatiality, self-determination and transnational frames of identity and belonging.


The displacement of crucial images of nationhood associated with the pre-neoliberal economy and postcolonial nation in these novels reflects their particular moment in time. Lacking a political agenda for the individual emancipation that constitutes one aspect of consumerism, both novels sacrifice unbroken traditions of national mythologies of earth mother goddesses to images of mobility and travel, neoliberal assets of material gain and new forms of agency and self-empowerment. In this reconfiguring of their national imaginaries alongside global ones the differences in their global economies are seminal: India, like other Asian countries, was ahead with the rapid growth of technologies focused in IT industries, while Ireland’s global expansion was intermittent and uneven and its nationalism remained closer to the postcolonial paradigm. Enright reinflects the national imaginary by expanding the role of the female, redefining and diversifying the family unit, which allows her to suggest an Ireland more sure of its roots and future, whereas Adiga creates reader undecidability, reinscribes masculinity in control in an innovative narrative structure, but in a symbolic erasure of the family and national myths of nurture and fertility presents a singular image of neoliberal capitalism: a loss of traditional bearings and moral compass in the realignment of the national towards a transnational global imaginary.

Acknowledgements: I should like to thank Anna Smith and Cristina Sandru for their astute comments on an earlier version of this article.

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1 On the critical reception, see Hunter 1286-89.

2 Meaney, citing Lyotard, comments that this is close to his idea of the postmodern, i.e. that “which cannot be represented is presented in representation” (Meaney 146).

3 On the narrator’s inauthenticity, and the problems of silencing and objectifying the subaltern in representing poverty, familiar in much Indian literature in English, see the debate in Connotations (Korte, Nandi, Lau and Mendes). Nandi argues that the narrator, invested in an elite discourse attributable to Adiga’s US and Oxford education, writes against middle class stereotypes of the subaltern, without necessarily giving voice to the subaltern (156, 158); Mendes argues that “class ventriloquism” (27) is introduced through strategies of characterization; Detmers that “the subaltern self’s emancipation […] [gives] a new voice” to the indigene (540), refashioned as a new precarious subject; Lochner that neoliberal discourses are contested in identifying the narrator as subaltern who writes himself into being (35).

4 Detmers reads The White Tiger as a “state-of-India” novel, referring to socio-political concerns such as “hegemony, class emancipation, revolt and revolution, crime and guilt” (536, 540); but while Balram claims his “business self-help genre as the public text of New India” (Tickell 163) and offers a model of emancipation for the poor (Adiga 318), there is no “redeeming collective agency on the part of the poor” (Tickell 157), or revolution, and his reimagining of India is reduced to the lens of the entrepreneurialism he promotes, through which the poor who are excluded from the economic miracle, are viewed.