This one has proven tricky.
I have written and re-written this review several times, and have tried to put into words my feelings on the latest book I’ve read, but still I have not been able to give it the justice due. It is partly, I feel, because of the great length of the book, and I don’t really fancy crafting a review that matches the author’s writing stamina.
Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, is a healthy 940-odd read, but a mere page number does not put into words just how much of a process reading this was, as I am sure it was for Roberts to write.
Lin, the protagonist, jumps the wall of an Australian prison and flees to Bombay (now Mumbai), where he is exposed to the very richest, the poorest, and the wisest of India, and quite possibly the world. He joins the Bombay mafia, establishes a free medical clinic for the poorest in society, joins a war, falls in love, and all the while paints an almost inspirational painting of life in India. In a city where multiculturalism is embraced, and the mafia’s dominance is accepted as a part of life, it is a perfect doorway to questions about our own societies, about acceptance, and re-instates faith in humanity at a time when it’s difficult to believe in anything. It is most interesting, perhaps, because it was crafted around the author’s own life, which was almost destined to be retold in literary form.
About five years pass in the novel, yet it could very well have taken me that long to finish reading it. I put it down, tried something else, came back to it several times, and all the while had quite mixed feelings about the whole experience. Let me tell you pourquoi.
Shantaram is overwhelming. I think that is the point. It immerses you, with Lin, in a wonderful culture quite opposite to our own. There are many moments that are heart-warming, heart-breaking, stomach-churning, and tear-jerking. His depiction of the characters, of the unfathomably beautiful Karla, of the loyal and joyous Prabaker, and of the sage and father figure Khaderkhan, to name a few, are so fleshed out, I could almost smell their colognes and feel their breath against my neck. They all had something to say, a grand philosophical opinion, a proverb thought of on the spot. But though many of their thoughts were interesting to consider and worth writing down for my own reference, is it entirely necessary to read so much of it?
At least a third of the book consisted of questions about life, the origin of God, and catchy, wise quotes from friends so intelligent and impactful that he could very well have found them in a monastery. The first few thoughts are interesting, and enough to inspire debate, but enough rambling can become irritating. I caught myself eye-rolling on many occasions, for I don’t believe it truly plausible to know that many people so wizened to the world, who have that much of an impact on one’s life. The fact that there are so many characters in the novel (more than I can possible count), and each one of them have something profound to say, is what made many of the instances and people introduced as simply unbelievable. I enjoy a philosophical debate, but when it comes from so many mouths at once, all with a ten-page discussion, it is no longer the character’s view, but the author’s own opinions that he wishes to promote. It comes across as preachy, and a little pretentious, with a desperate need to start a debate.
Furthermore, Gregory depicts Lin as a character thought of so highly, and loved by so many, which is lovely, but I think humility is a virtue that the main character lacks. While it promotes him as the hero, it also makes the author come across as a little self-righteous, considering as it is based on his own life.
I also think many authors (myself included) have a habit of including too much information. I think his personal attachment to much of the source material may have dissuaded him from “cutting the fat”, which would have saved the reader a lot of time, the printing companies a lot of money, and may well have inspired many more to pick up the book: I know how daunting it is to see such a heavy tome. I have seen encyclopaedias with less information. Yes, it’s nice to know he understands what he’s talking about, and yes, somebody out there might enjoy what I did not, but there’s only so much talk about printing offices and currency exchanges that I can withstand before I start skipping paragraphs.
My thoughts above do not dissuade me from considering a second read-through. It is easier to criticise the bad than point out the good, because we have a tendency to point out our own flaws and react badly to praise. But pushing my critical opinions aside, I really do think it was expertly written. It took him thirteen years to write, six which were spent in prison, and it is evident that his blood, sweat and tears went into making it. It is incredibly descriptive, wonderfully informative, and makes me want to visit India. Over the last few months, reading Shantaram, I have laughed, I have grimaced, and I have even shed a tear or two. When the end came, despite my opinions on the content, I was terribly upset to realise the journey was over. I feel like I lived a lifetime reading his own, and have certainly picked up a few new words, too.
Would I recommend this to someone? Yes. Yes, I would. It is educational, real, and so brilliantly shocking. To anyone considering climbing this mountain, I would say: Persevere. The climb is difficult, and you will often want to turn around, but I promise that the view from the top will take your breath away.
MY RATING: 4/5