I have just finished reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.
My father first recommended the book to me years ago after he read it on holiday, and a few months ago I was instructed to read it by a lady. Given my preoccupation with all things India, love of a good book, and how well both the story sommeliers know me, I decided to finally broach the behemoth. And it is quite the monster of a book… 930 pages, with not even a picture to keep me entertained.
As you may have gathered from this blog, and those that know me, I am normally a fairly binary character; I know what I like (gin, electroswing, port meadow) and what I don’t like (dill, Cornmarket, vermouth) but this one has left me stumped. Not, to push the cricketing analogy, Myatt. 33. Caught and bowled, Roberts. But more stumped; playing forward to one that turned more than expected.
Let me explain. I know I should have loved this look. I wanted to love this book. The fact that I was lent dad’s battered copy of a book nearly 1000 pages long all about India, should have been enough. The fact that someone, more dear to me than she knows, shoved a note in my pocket telling me in bold capitals that I was a fool not to have read it, was reason enough. The fact that I read it on my first holiday in years shows that I was willing to accept the page turning marathon. And in truth, I did love it. But only in parts.
The main character in the book, Lin, is almost subservient to what is best described as “Mother India.” I loved the descriptions of her cities, villages, people, bustle, and vibrancy. If you have been to the sub-continent, you will know exactly what I am talking about. The fact that she grips you, assaults you, and demands the full attention of every one of your senses is an almost ubiquitous, but bewildering, realisation that you are already in love with her. The time Lin spends in the slums and coffee shops of Bombay are the most convincing and compelling parts of the book. You sit with him in the wicker bucket seats at Leopold’s, help him to mend the tin roofs ahead of the monsoon in the clinic, and watch in horror during the beatings at the Arthur Road Prison. (Incidentally you can visit most of the sites in the book with one of the ‘real’ characters. See here.) Roberts’ descriptions of the major characters are very human and believable. For the most part the book ticks along at a good pace, and despite its focus on brutal violence and complex criminals it is an enjoyable read. The twists are spread evenly enough throughout the book to keep you interested, even if they hove sluggishly into view pages before they are executed.
However I have some reservations about the book. The vast majority of the characters are poorly developed. We learn a lot about them, but they add very little to the book. For example, we are provided with personal descriptions and life stories of each of the mujahideen fighters as they battle through Afghanistan, but their actions and role in the development of the plot is limited. This could be for one of two reasons, either Roberts loves the sound of his own descriptive narrative, or they were all real people who profoundly affected his life and he wanted to memorialise them in this way. Roberts has claimed that the book is semi-autobiographical; and certainly there is enough evidence not to doubt his assertion, but this does sometimes lead to frustrating narrative cul-de-sacs. This is (increasingly, and lamentably) acceptable in a serialisation, but indulgent in a 1000 page single volume. Aside from the three main characters the cast list is a touch cartoon… everyone is an extrovert who has two, or at most three, defining features. Karla for instance has a green eyes, a great body, and Lin loves her; but despite the love being constantly examined in a nauseatingly introspective way, it is never explained or convincing. I don’t agree with the accusations from some quarters of inherent racism, but the number of characters could be halved, their intensity doubled, and the book would, IMHO, be much the better for it.
Lin, or Roberts, clearly is his own biggest fan. Chapters are devoted to his looks, charm, linguistic abilities, athleticism, humility, cunning, bravery, and admittedly his flaws, addictions, and criminality. It can be best described as self obsessed. The way Lin is ‘at ease’ with everyone, but ill at ease with himself hints at a darker narcissism, but the constant introspection of the main character is a bore. The very name, albeit a moniker, Shantaram means ‘man of peace,’ and it is hard to imagine others so hubristically accepting and using the title. The nascent philosophy are at the same time a welcome relief, and vaguely irritating. The development of the debate between Lin and his mentor and father figure regarding ethics and intention of action provides a second dimension to the book, but it is hardly a balanced introduction to Deontology or Consequentialism. Kant too thought it possible to develop a consistent moral system using reason alone, but his theory glimmers here rather than shines, eclipsed by the star of the semi-autobigraphical show.
Basically I wanted too much. I wanted the Seven Pillars of Wisdom with James Bond. What we have is an fantastically engaging, gripping, page turner, that will make you smile and your stomach turn at the same time. However, and alas, it is no modern Arabian Nights… that said, if you do know of one, please do tell me!