Adiga’s debut novel gives us on narrator who is, by turns, charming, repugnant, profound, egotistical, insightful, and much more, but always, always fascinating. Balram, when he introduces himself, is a self-made entrepreneur and a murderer. His story is told through a letter he writes to the Chinese Premier who will be visiting his country. His voice is unique and can stand with some of the best know ‘narrators’ of classic literature. That his is such a different voice from a underrepresented culture from much of the canon literature is perhaps what makes it more real – in that his tale is authentic to who he is, and the world in which he exists, but that world is likely so unfamiliar to the audience that it confounds expectation and forces us to look at our own stance and belief on many moral, philosophical, and religious topics.
Anyone who knows me, knows I tend to be highly critical of 1st Person narration for a number of reasons. To create a unique, memorable voice that tells the story is complicated – perhaps more so than many authors understand, despite 1st POV being the instinctual way to tell a story. Besides the need for a unique voice, 1st POV can only tell one story always filtered through the narrator and too often authors try to short-cut or work around this and find ways to tell another story that we are to believe is not filtered through the consciousness telling that story. Here, however, that is never the case. We are left with no doubt that the world Balram inhabits is all his.
Balsam offers to give the Premier insight into his country through his own tale of being born in a lower caste in the ‘darkness’, through his sporadic and limited education to the moment he gets lucky and becomes a driver for a wealthy man. Through his bizarre, amusing, shocking, winding tale, we do see an India that is far different than the Bollywood films or many popular books and films. Balram’s world is filled with corruption, yet there is a level of honor within that established system. There is a hardness and a harshness to many of the lives presented, yet there is an acceptance of them that is surprising. Balram’s life is one of service, yet he finds a door to freedom, albeit one that while revealed early on, takes an entire book to build to. When we first hear him refer to himself as a murderer, we want to dislike him – yet it is difficult to do. Bit by bit we are drawn into his world and his worldview. In the end, he participates in the very system he needed to escape from, but he does so on his own terms and with his moral sense in tact, leaving him feeling he at least is living in that system in a better, more moral way. The ability to convince the audience of the same is perhaps the real power of Balram, and Adiga.
My one criticism of the novel is that were moments that felt repetitive, that we’d covered that ground well and needed to move on. Fortunately, they were few and far between, and overall I was absorbed into Balram’s world.
For this book, I alternated between the kindle version and the audio – and I have to say that the narrator on the audio version was excellent, bringing life to a diverse cast of characters with slight shifts in tone, rhythm, pitch, and subtly that was masterful. Considering the story is 1st POV, that the audio narrator had to filter all the characters through the storyteller, it was extremely well done because it felt like Balram was imitating those around him, giving us yet another layer of story.