Illustration by Toby Whitebread of a self-made man

My novel Beggar’s Feast explores the life and times of a self-made Sri Lankan man. Over one hundred years, he marries three times, is widowed twice under dark circumstances, fathers 16 children and amasses great wealth, while pursuing heady adventures and shady business ventures in Australia and across Asia. Readers are often surprised to learn that the story that inspired the book comes out of my own family history. I came across it when I was in Sri Lanka a few years ago and an uncle shocked me with tales of a strange and notorious figure from our past.

The man in question did terrible, terrible things on his way up but kept rising and, in the end, enjoyed a rich and full and happy life. In my fictional telling, he’s called Sam Kandy and is born in rural Ceylon in 1899, where he’s told by his family and the greater society around him that his origins will prevent his becoming anything more than a dirt-poor village boy. Pushed to prove otherwise to himself and everyone else, Kandy becomes a powerful and often ruthless self-made man consumed with proving the world wrong about his chances and preventing others from knowing about his bleak beginnings.

Critics have compared Kandy with F Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby and Mad Men’s Don Draper. This is flattering and, ostensibly, makes sense. Gatsby’s whole life is an exercise in spectacular self-presentation, and it is only by the end of the novel that we realise his life is actually a spectacle of self-concealment. Gatsby begins, in the novel’s most famous phrase, as a “nobody from nowhere”, aka Jimmy Gatz from North Dakota. By way of bootlegging and gambling, he transforms into a gleaming paragon of aristocratic-like wealth and play and power, even if his existence is lonely, secretive, and hollow.

Draper grows up in a Pennsylvania whorehouse, steals a fallen soldier’s identity during the Korean war, and moves to Manhattan, where he becomes an alpha male advertising executive. He enjoys great worldly success while desperately hiding his past, and spends most of his time stuck in a high-end rut of broken relationships and bad behaviour that fills him with angst and longing. There’s certainly much that Sam Kandy has in common with Gatsby and Draper but the fuller family story that inspired my novel challenges these classic versions of self-made men.

In fact, I decided to write the book after learning, to my surprise, that a man who, during his self-made rise in the world, murdered his first two wives, found true and lasting joy with his third. To make sense of this in fiction, I have Kandy humbled and redeemed by a woman who loves him for the flawed but genuine person he first and finally is, not the seemingly great man he has made himself into. Readers have told me that their fascination, even difficulty, with the character has much to do with his finally enjoying a thriving family life, despite the brutalities he commits along the way.

I can only agree: for writer and reader alike, it’s easy enough to celebrate an honourable self-made man and, likewise, to demonise a dishonourable one. What, though, do we make of a self-made man who resists our well-established categories for this type, someone who overcomes his origins through dreadful means, and in the end still finds forgiveness and redemption?

Where does our enduring fascination with the self-made come from? It has always had much to do with our natural interest in tales of human striving, particularly when they begin in lowly circumstances that lead to enormous wealth and grand public service. (It’s not as easy to get excited about stories of people who overcome significant personal odds to become mobile phone salesmen or actuaries.) Often there is also the delicious suspicion that there are dark and shameful secrets to be discovered behind magnificent success stories such as those of Gatsby and Draper.

Jon Hamm as 'Mad Men’s' Don Draper
Jon Hamm as 'Mad Men’s' Don Draper

But when it comes to stories of famous self-made men in real life, the tension tends to be more direct. The scale of the self-made man’s achievements is often magnified by accounts that fix our attention on the smallness of his start, the seeming impossibility that such a start could lead to any greatness.

Arguably, the very first in this line was Benjamin Franklin: the son of a simple Boston candle maker, he helps found the United States of America, pursues pioneering work in electricity amid various inventions and innovations, and turns himself into one of the most consequential figures in US history, in no small part by writing an autobiography that emerged as a famous template both for becoming a self-made man and evangelising about it to would-be followers.

Indeed, in the US, many have come after Franklin: the national ethic of individualism and rhetoric of boundless opportunity encourages a culture of proudly self-made achievement: deaf, uneducated Thomas Edison brings off world-changing inventions such as a commercially viable lightbulb and founds world-beating companies like General Electric; Charles Merrill borrows $10 to take a client to lunch and from that builds a multibillion-dollar investment firm; Ray Kroc works as a travelling milkshake mixer salesman until he buys a California hamburger restaurant called McDonald’s and begins to cover the world in golden arches; Sam Walton turns an Arkansas convenience store (part of the Ben Franklin five and dime store chain, fittingly) into the very first of many, many Walmarts; fatherless college dropout Larry Ellison uses $2,000 of his own money to found Oracle software; Manoj Bhargava, born in India, comes to America with his family and drives a cab and works in construction before inventing an energy drink that makes him a billionaire.

You can argue the terms of what constitutes a self-made man; you can expose stout autobiographies as self-serving creation myths; you can point out any number of decisive cultural, social, geographic and historical factors that usually tend to be played down and obscured by the exciting tales of beggar boys turned tycoons, but it doesn’t change the basic fact that we have an insatiable appetite for their stories. There are, of course, self-made women as well, with Madonna and Oprah Winfrey perhaps the most prominent.

Increasingly, these stories are coming from all parts of the globe. In Russia, for instance, orphan and Soviet Army recruit Roman Abramovich leaves behind military service to become a politically connected oil magnate and oligarch. In China, Li Ka-shing drops out of high school to help support his fatherless family and, from selling wristwatches, rises up to become a global property baron and Asia’s reigning richest man. Time magazine predicts that, by the end of the year, there will be more millionaires living in Asia than North America for the first time, while in its latest annual review of the world’s top billionaires, Forbes feels it important to note that by its reckoning, 275 of the 400 on the list rate as “self-made”.

As such reports suggest, the story of the self-made man seems especially attuned to registering and helping explain the contours of “rising Asia”: nowhere else but in countries such as India and China are the rigidities of otherwise caste-stratified societies being so dramatically bent and broken by the worldwide flow of people, capital, and culture. Of course, such rigidities have always been tested internally but now the dynamic plays out in global and globalised terms, with a particular emphasis on bold, singular achievements. My effort to tell Sam Kandy’s story of 100 years of moving against his birth-hour fate explores just this dynamic.

It is also played out in more amusing terms on television shows such as Netflix’s Lilyhammer. The protagonist, a New York mobster turned self-made Norwegian businessman, gets in trouble for using unlicensed computer software and tries to avoid a penalty by offering a bribe to a young Indian man working at a New Delhi call-centre. When that gambit fails, he asks: “Ever heard of Norway?” He then proposes an illegal immigration scheme to bring the man over. The Indian man accepts immediately, moves to Lillehammer, and seamlessly joins the businessman’s operation as a crack computer hacker. Suddenly, he’s making far more money and seeing far more of the world and having far more fun than his call-centre career could have ever made possible, never mind what his parents or grandparents might have expected for him. What’s telling about this sequence is the ease with which it unfolds, particularly for the Indian character willing and able to abandon his entire known world for a sudden chance to make himself into something radically new.

At the very same time as we seem newly obsessed with self-made figures, be they Indian, Chinese, Russian, Brazilian, or the latest legendary American immigrant success story, public debate around the world is focused on the problem of widening inequality, both within and across nations. In fact, one popular conceptualisation of this problem is Princeton University economist Alan Krueger’s “Great Gatsby curve”, a chart that plots the relationship between income inequality and social mobility across generations living in developed economies.

Regardless of the hard data findings, by its very moniker the Great Gatsby curve implies that only wildly ambitious and wildly successful self-made men are able to overcome historically entrenched and systemic poverty. This implication ascribes only more significance to the self-made as the best possible pathway out of dire straits, regardless of how plausible or viable any example could be for others; the accompanying effect, of course, is the obfuscation of the larger problem of inequality.

Both Pope Francis and President Obama, each lauded as a kind of self-made man in his own right, have emphasised the gravity of this problem. The Pope has boldly set forth the religious and ethical imperatives calling people to work towards the amelioration of poverty and inequality. He has emphasised the urgency of the situation in a European context, for instance, by drawing renewed attention to the ongoing problem of African refugees making perilous boat journeys to Europe’s shores in desperate hope of better prospects. Meanwhile, marking the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s war on poverty, Obama has declared he will devote his presidency to programmes that will revitalise the many failing parts of the United States.

Shahid Khan, who went from washing dishes to owning an NFL franchise and Fulham Football Club
Shahid Khan, who went from washing dishes to owning an NFL franchise and Fulham Football Club

To all of which I say with a sigh, “Yeah, yeah.” Of course, we ought to work towards whichever visions and policies would be best to stem widening inequality; likewise, we ought to consider changes in our own consumption habits and lifestyle expectations. But the first option is exceedingly complicated and overwhelming in scale; the second is stark and personally implicating and, therefore, even harder. And anyway, wouldn’t we really rather watch a puffy television profile of someone such as Pakistan-born Florida billionaire Shahid Khan, who begins life in America washing dishes for $3 an hour, eventually owns an auto parts company that generates revenues of $3bn a year, and picks up an NFL franchise and an English Premier League football club with some of his spare change? Or if we have more rarefied and bookish taste, wouldn’t we prefer to spend the evening nose-deep in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and cheer on Thomas Cromwell as he rises and schemes and rises and survives and rises still more from his terrible, ignoble beginnings to become the most powerful man in all of King Henry’s realm?

Of course we would, those of us living in the comfy middle of a world marked by extremes of wealth and poverty. Indeed, we might consume the stories of self-made men from around the world too sanguinely. They can tacitly pacify us by affirming our own basic trade-off: as the global middle class, we enjoy security and stability and expect continuity of material ease across generations. We accept that this means we will never get to build a single-family skyscraper condominium but also that we will never have to worry that our children will go to bed cold and hungry, sleeping cheek by jowl in dank, dismal quarters where some poor boy right now is dreaming of someday making enough of himself to build a whole tower for him and his loved ones. Indeed, we can use stories of self-made men to pacify the global poor as well, insofar as such tales are appealing ones to invoke: if they just work hard enough and catch a few breaks, someday they, too, could make billions and own both American and British football teams.

To be sure, I don’t mean to suggest we swear off such stories; rather, I suggest that in enjoying accounts of self-made men, we should ask ourselves what’s motivating our interest. In turn, we can elevate that interest by seeking stories that draw our attention to more than straightforwardly inspiring accounts of heroic ascent, or delectable accounts of monstrous overcompensation and deceit.

A more substantial kind of enjoyment is to be found in stories that reveal the often sizeable human suffering and yearning that inspires self-made men to plot and pursue their rises, and also reveal the costs incurred along the way, borne by themselves and the people and greater world around them. In recent years, accomplished novels by young Asian novelists have offered as much. Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire (2013) takes the ironic form of an optimistic how-to manual for would-be self-made men, even while exploring the dismal realities of striving nobodies in frenetic Shanghai; Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) adopts a similar premise that seems all the more tempting and absurd for a young man making his way up through the slummy side of Lahore; Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008) takes a blacker track, introducing us to an amoral low-caste servant who becomes a proud and successful Bangalore businessman through an unrepentant combination of murder and bribery.

Unlike these books, my novel finally reveals an unexpected, unmerited and genuinely happy ending for its main character. But Beggar’s Feast shares with them an ironic edge, which serves to question the very terms of worldly achievement and personal accomplishment that are otherwise romanticised and idealised today as the great goods awaiting future self-made men, across Asia and around the world. Real and imagined and spanning the globe, they’re desperately ready to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and Bata slippers, while we’re only too ready to enjoy their shined-up stories.

Randy Boyagoda’s novel ‘Beggar’s Feast’ is published by Penguin in the UK and by Pintail in the US

A correction was made to this article on January 20. The article originally stated that Benjamin Franklin’s father was a Pennsylvania candlemaker. It has been corrected to say that he was a Boston candlemaker.

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