Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts – Book review

14 May 2015

I can proudly say that its pages are now tattered through turning as opposed to through some kind of industrial accident.

This novel has been around a while; originally published in 2001 it has since sold over 4 million copies. This is a wildly successful book. I should have heard of it, but I hadn’t. Not that I feel bad about that, not until some time last year when I realised that a lot of people I knew had not only read it, but also loved it. As if that wasn’t reason enough to dive into it, a few Google searches revealed that its long awaited sequel “The Mountain Shadow” is out in October this year. That sealed it, what better time begin? I made a promise to myself that I would finish this doorstop of a book and though I wavered on one occasion I can proudly say that its pages are now tattered through turning as opposed to through some kind of industrial accident.

Shantaram is an unusual book. For me it is one that is greater than the sum of its parts, but because I actively disliked many of those parts you may be surprised to hear that I actually enjoyed the book overall. There are moments of brilliance and beauty in it, but often those moments are peppered and punctuated with disappointment. At its core though, once you strip away what doesn’t work, you are left with a rollicking adventure story – and ultimately everyone likes a good adventure story.

This novel is based on the life of Gregory David Roberts (referred to as Lin throughout the book), it charts his escape from an Australian prison to his subsequent life in India, where the vast bulk of the story takes place. However, it is listed as fiction and as such, the reader is often left wondering “how much of this actually happened?”. That may not be a problem for some but for me it introduced a niggling thought that stayed with me during my reading. That niggle surfacing when plot lines converged and tied themselves into a neat little bow or when conversations took a philosophical turn, with major characters often discussing plainly and directly the major themes of the book. The latter seemingly a cheap and easy way to bypass the “show and not tell” rule of writing. “Did this really happen?” I asked myself, again and again and again. I would have been better off believing that this was purely autobiographical – as I had done for the first third of the book.

My other major problem with the book was that with the exception of a few characters, I found that most of the novel’s inhabitants were simply just not very nice. I don’t expect to like every character in a novel, but when so many of its pages are dedicated to conversations with these characters, characters which our protagonist himself seems to like, the desire to carry on through a 930 page tome can evaporate quite quickly. My foremost grievance in this respect is Lin’s principal love interest – Karla. She is beautiful, yes, but she is also cold and distant and in spite of this Lin continues to pine for her whilst failing to recognise that she isn’t particularly pleasant. In fact, it’s that failure to recognise that may very well be at the heart of the problems with the novel. In the same way that 90s sitcom Seinfeld adhered to the mantra “No hugging, no learning.” in many ways so does Shantaram. Seinfeld did this in the name of comedy so that comedic plot lines were not slowly lost to soap opera but Shantaram does it due to an inherent character flaw in its protagonist. It crossed my mind that perhaps this was intentional, a comment on the futility of change, that one cannot cast aside their essential nature by running away. After all, addiction, prison, violence and crime are all facets of Lin’s story in India and they seem to have followed him across continents, from the life he supposedly left behind. If so, then it could have been done in a way that the protagonist actually recognises. As it stands it seems as if many of Lins’s failings manifest as a result of a pattern of behaviours that he is unable to change, and any growth experienced is merely in Lin’s mind. Meanwhile, he continues along the same path, dragged down by the unsavouries around him. Worthy of a special mention is the character Prabaker who seems more richly drawn than many of the others, he is also very likeable and contributes to much of the humour of the novel.

Characters aside, my main problem with Shantaram is with how seriously it takes itself. This novel seems intent on trying to make a philosophical point for everything Lin experiences. Almost without fail, at the beginning and end of every chapter Gregory David Roberts shifts his focus from the events taking place to reflect on what his experiences teach us about humanity. Whether he is writing about morality or love or death he makes a habit of projecting his own feelings, his own thoughts on these grand themes outward to the reader, swapping “I” for “you” as if he is addressing the reader directly. Personally, I found this self-aggrandising rather than revelatory and was responsible for weighing down the plot unnecessarily. Others may find that this insight offers them something (and the numerous five star reviews abound seem to suggest this) but I am not one of them and I felt like it should have done without it. In fact, it’s this philosophising in tandem with my final complaint – Robert’s overtly descriptive writing style, drenched in simile and double barrelled adjectives – that contribute to this book’s greatest weakness: it’s too damn long! Robert’s really went all out on this and it is evident on almost every page. I can’t help but feeling that a good editor could have reigned him into understanding that he was trying to do far too much. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments where the writing works, it’s poetic, vibrant and apt, and in those moments my hopes for this novel were restored. But like an overcooked sponge cake some parts were easier to swallow than others.

In spite of its problems this novel’s saving grace is its story, it is great, it takes you places you don’t expect and presents Bombay (before it was renamed to Mumbai) in an honest and multifaceted light. Roberts loves this city, and not just the nice parts, he loves it in its entirety. This Westerner’s adoptive view of 80s Bombay is one of the main successes of the novel as a whole. Forget Karla; Lin & Roberts, if they are indeed different people, are in love with the city most of all and ultimately it’s the story and the setting that kept me coming back to Shantaram’s pages. But there were oh so many pages. Had the writing been condensed and the attempt at a philosophical underpinning repressed I believe there is a five star novel hidden amongst these pages. At one point I wished I could give editing it to a more tidy and well-paced 600 pages a go myself. As it stands it is hampered by Robert’s attempt to give his own life meaning beyond its merit. So will I be reading the sequel “The Mountain Shadow” (whose publisher lists as it being 976 pages – longer than Shantaram itself) when it comes out in October 2015? That depends. If it is indeed man’s propensity to reflect more deeply on his own life with age, and considering nearly fifteen years has passed since Shantaram was published, I’m inclined to say no. However, if Roberts has become more critical, wizened and perhaps even given George Orwell’s essay on writing a glance then I may very well do so.

3.5 out of 5