Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Shantaram- Gregory David Roberts

It's taken me the best part of four months to read this book, although I did have a sizeable interlude somewhere in the middle to re-read the first three Harry Potters. Shantaram can only be described as epic, the five parts worthy of being individual books in themselves. The story is based on real events and follows the life of Lin (Roberts' fake name) in Mumbai after escaping from an Australian Prison. Before reading this book I had barely even considered India as a potential place to visit, but now I would love to go. Roberts vividly paints a picture of the hustle and bustle of the city with all its sights and smells, as well as the beautiful sunsets and lapping shores of the coastline. But more importantly than all that, he brings the characters to life, imitating accents to perfection and excellently portraying the vast array of people. He particularly left an impression on me of the warmness and kindness of the Indian people, their sense of community and happiness in the face of poverty. 
Almost as soon as he arrives in the city Lin makes friends with Prabaker, a happy go lucky Indian tour guide who's optimistic view on the world is infectious. Together they have many adventures, allowing Lin to really experience Mumbai in all its glory, both good and bad. He spends time living in a small village where he learns to speak the local language. He lives in a slum and accidentally becomes the resident doctor, which culminates in him trying to contain a bout of cholera. He buys medication from a group of lepers, helps a dancing bear escape prison and has to fight off wild dogs to protect a young boy. There really are more adventures than you can count; more than I can now remember. And on the tourist-expat side Lin has a whole other life going on. He regularly drinks in Leopold's bar with his vast array of interesting and odd friends, including the mysterious Karla whom he is hopelessly in love with. Through her come a series of other escapades, including trying to rescue a prostitute from the clutches of the terrifying (and rarely seen) big time brothel owner Madam Zhou. 
The book goes in a different direction when Lin becomes more involved with Khader Khan, the gangster who owns pretty much everything and who everyone knows. Lin is drawn to Khader in a father-son kind of way and as a result agrees to do anything that is asked of him, from working as part of the fake passport trade to going to war. 
I have to say that the part of the book set in Afghanistan was my least favourite. Not to say it wasn't interesting, I just found it gruesome, depressing and rather long, lacking the essential page turning element of the rest of the novel.
Many critics and reviewers have said that Shantaram is too long winded, but I thought the majority was well written, compelling and necessary for the story. There is a huge philosophical influence to the narrative, with opinions on politics, love and life coming from a variety of people. Some passages were so beautiful and moving that I read them twice, even bookmarking a few to come back to later.

A couple of examples:
'I'm talking about what you're doing to yourself by hating the world. Someone told me once that if you make your heart a weapon, you always end up using it on yourself.' 

'And that was the elated moment I'd called glorious, in my mind, as I ran into the guns; that stupid waste of lifes, that friendly fire. There wasn't any glory in it, there never is. There's only courage and fear and love. And war kills them all, one by one. Glory belongs to God, of course; that's what the word really means. And you can't serve God with a gun.' 

I suppose my only real criticism of the book is that it was long, and I'm not sure that really is a criticism. Why shouldn't a novel be long? You can always take a break in the middle like I did. Shantaram is not a story to be read from cover to cover on a rainy afternoon by the fire, but if you're up for the journey, it certainly has one hell of a tale to tell.

4-and-a-half out of 5