13 February, 2012Issue 18.3FictionLiterature

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About A Building

Dominic Davies

BritishAravind Adiga
Last Man In Tower
Atlantic Books, 2011
560 pages
ISBN 978-1848875166


Aravind Adiga sprung to international fame when his first novel, The White Tiger, won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. However, his negative portrayal of the dark underbelly of a rapidly developing India provoked attacks from several Indian critics. Adiga’s latest work Last Man In Tower is a natural development of his analysis of the social impact that huge economic growth and ever-extending capitalist markets are having on India. By drawing attention to the complex and largely (though not entirely) negative repercussions of this swift change, it has engendered similar criticism to those levelled at The White Tiger. Perhaps understandably, therefore, Adiga recently claimed in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Front Row that this will be the last novel he writes to tackle the socio-economic development of his native country.

However, even if Last Man in Tower is Adiga’s final effort to negotiate these aspects of Indian society, he departs from them with force. Though the title indicates otherwise, rather than choosing to limit his narration to one central protagonist (a technique The White Tiger employed so superbly), Last Man in Tower plays host to a dolly mixture of characters. A variety of social workers, teachers, businessmen, all members of the new Indian middle class, are tied together by what Adiga himself has called “the novel’s central character”: the bustling city of Mumbai. But it is from within this intricate urban landscape that the real protagonist of the novel emerges as a very specific architectural location: the eponymous Tower. It is around this Tower, home to Adiga’s cast of characters, that the refreshingly simple plot rotates. Shah, a rich businessman looking to develop a luxury resort in a district of the city, needs land. The Tower is located upon Shah’s desired patch of real estate, and he thus offers each resident 300% of the market value of his or her apartment in a bid to persuade them to move out by a rigid deadline, which the gradual movement toward lends the novel an increasingly heightening tension. A brief authorial aside at the start of the novel stresses the significance of the money offered to each of the apartments’ inhabitants: it is more than 400 times the average Indian annual per capita income, enough to allow the residents to live comfortably for the rest of their (and their children’s) lives.

The novel’s power lies in its ability to enact the development of a cast of increasingly complex and detailed characters that are, one by one, simultaneously reduced to a price by Shah as he bribes them to leave their community. The final catch is that if one resident refuses, the deal is broken, and no one receives any money. Adiga’s initially tentative, then deadly analysis of the effect of large sums of cash upon a social group charts the disintegration of a close-knit community into a collection of isolated and selfish individuals. The detailed exploration of these social repercussions produces a sustained and nuanced critique of the effects of the swift economic development that India is currently experiencing.

This might seem like an extraordinarily basic plot structure for a novel of some 400 pages (nearly twice the length of The White Tiger). But Adiga’s masterstroke is to explore the complications that such a seemingly simple monetary offer can provoke. Although the novel is formulaic in structure, each resident gradually succumbing to Shah’s bribe, the reduction of the plot to this linear simplicity allows Adiga to explore a range of intricate subtleties that a more sophisticated plot would bog down: this is not a first novel, and is driven by a writerly confidence that comes only from an international bestseller and Man Booker Prize winner. By accepting the simplicity of the plot and engaging with the carefully detailed subjectivities of Adiga’s characters, readers will suddenly find themselves caught in a bleak landscape of moral dilemma in which one man, the “Last Man” of the title, refuses on principle to be bought by Shah. The narrative’s exploration of the numerous contingent factors that influence each resident’s decision-making process obscures any morally correct action. It is this detail that allows Adiga to demand ambivalence from his reader, the life-changing potential of the vast sum of money forcing us to contemplate the fact that maybe we all have a price.

Though focused on this specific architectural, economic, and cultural arena, the novel gestures beyond its setting. Many of the tower’s residents are economic migrants from other parts of India, and the issues that preoccupy the rest of the subcontinent and, furthermore, the world feed into the narrative in a wonderful literary move that draws our attention to the global nature of these dilemmas, while remaining embedded within a vibrant local environment. Western readers would do well to think about the broader readership that the novel has engaged. The sorts of middle class people that populate the novel will themselves comprise Adiga’s primary Indian readership, which adds another dimension to the acuteness of his critique. However, even if we read the novel from the perspective of the former imperial centre, distanced geographically and socially from its immediate criticisms, Adiga demands via the detail of his narrative that we plant ourselves within his contemporary India. Though Adiga’s decision to write in English demonstrates conscious engagement with an international audience by conveying the complexities of this specific social situation, Last Man in Tower produces a moral ambivalence that prevents us from forming any simple “judgement” of the changes occurring in its society. The result is a postcolonial blurring of the binary divisions of “developed” and “developing” and the hierarchical traces they contain. Adiga’s self-conscious refusal to address historical issues such as British imperialism, and difficult cultural subjects such as arranged marriage and the caste system, allows the novel to portray a new country of confidence and self-assurance that is not accountable to any international body, but rather to its own democratic citizens.

It is for this reason that criticisms of Adiga’s negative representation of India are surely ill-founded. Though the novel is openly ambivalent and at times horrifying, the fact that a book of this nature can emerge from the subcontinent suggests the existence of a healthy, open society that makes as much space for its social critics and literary authors as it does for its new class of profit-hungry capitalists. Adiga’s ability to combine and transcend these roles has produced an intricately layered novel that testifies to his skill as a writer: Last Man in Tower enacts an extended social critique that is powered by its convincing characterization and compelling narrative. The novel’s ability to allude to the changing contours of the global economy and the penetration of India by capitalist markets and ideologies, while remaining distinctly Indian in its plot, setting, and characterization, demands international readers to shift their geographical perspective to a country that is soon to be, if it is not already, a key player on the international stage. Readers of Last Man in Tower will hope that Adiga doesn’t stick to his commitment to withdraw the socioeconomic commentary from his future writing. His ability to draw out moments of direct criticism from carefully nuanced social explorations mark him out as one of the greatest Indian novelists writing in English today.

Dominic Davies is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford.