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Posts Tagged ‘Shantaram’

One of the particular pleasures of infiltrating my family’s parties, as I do a couple of times a year, is the opportunity to catch up with my semi-cousin, His MBEship. In addition to being the only person even vaguely connected with the clan to have been honoured by HRH, His MBEship is a well-read fellow and seldom lets a visit go by without pushing a book in my direction and saying ‘take a look at this.’ Many of these are things which would not necessarily show up on my radar in the usual course of events, but they have always turned out to be interesting and worth taking a look at. Back in July, His MBEship’s pick was Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, which is such a substantial tome (nearly 950 pages) that I’ve only just finished reading it.

It’s a little difficult to pin down exactly what kind of book this is. A brief summary of the plot makes it sound like a thriller: the protagonist, an Australian escaped convict whose real name we never learn, arrives in Bombay on a stolen passport at some point in the early 1980s. He finds he rather likes the place, makes friends with a comic-relief local guide, falls in love with another member of the expat scene, becomes a black-market fixer, slum doctor, prisoner, gangster, peripheral member of the Bollywood scene, and unwilling mujahideen, all over the course of about five or six years.

However, one must also bear in mind that this rollicking tale of an Aussie bank robber and former heroin addict who ends up living in India for years has been written by an Aussie bank robber and former heroin addict who ended up living in India for years, and one of the questions floating around this book is just to what extent it is some sort of roman a clef, and how much of it is based on stuff which actually happened to Roberts. ‘They’re novels – it doesn’t matter how much of it is true or not,’ is the author’s official position on the topic, and whatever else you can say about his writing, he hides the joins supremely well. My personal suspicion (apologies to the author if I’m wrong) is that he did not, in fact, nearly die of frostbite in Afghanistan after being hit by a mortar shell while fighting the Soviets, but he tells this part of the tale with all the vividness and detail that he does the rest of it.

And there is rather a lot of it, as I mentioned before. Well, there’s nothing wrong with a good epic, and the author mixes things up and varies the tone rather deftly – the narrative goes from a nerve-wracking visit to the chilling madam of a high-class brothel, to a considered discussion of the nature of good and evil with an Afghan crime lord, to a comic vignette about trying to get a bear bailed out of jail, in the space of as many scenes. Some of the transitions are so outrageous it’s hard to believe they’re not based on true events.

And as a thriller it’s a good story, set in a world not much covered by mainstream western media – you can see why a film version has been in the works for years (it is such a no-brainer that Joel Edgerton will be playing the protagonist that even I was able to guess as much), although I wish the screenwriter luck in getting the story down to under six hours of screen time.

The thing is, though, that Shantaram (the title is Marathi for ‘Man of peace’, and it’s not clear whether this is meant to be ironic or not) seems to have aspirations to be more than just a hefty airport novel and actually become Proper Literature. It tries really, really hard on this score; so hard that I would say the strain occasionally shows.

Well, look, there are lots of books and movies about gangsters – it’s one of those genres that never seems to go out of fashion. Roberts’ protagonist cloaks himself in the dubious glamour of the outlaw, the gangster, the wanted man, in addition to the various other ways he arguably self-aggrandises himself – he talks a lot about guilt and regret but it never feels particularly palpable. The subtext seems to be ‘Yeah, I was a bank robber and a gangster, but it’s not as if there’s much wrong with that, because I did it as honourably as I could, never personally killed anyone, and I came away with all these valuable life lessons which I will now proceed to share with you.’ Gee, thanks, I think.

One of the reasons His MBEship was so impressed with Shantaram is the sheer level of detail and local colour woven into the text. Well, yes, Roberts clearly knows Bombay well, but I suspect there was less research involved – when you live in a place even for a short time, you do pick this stuff up surprisingly quickly. Nevertheless, you do learn a lot of practical bits and pieces from reading the book: how to win a knife fight in the prison laundry, how to make a fortune by dealing in stolen passports, various philological and geographical tidbits too.

For me the problematic stuff comes when Roberts decides to start waxing eloquent about the important truths of life. He writes naturalistic dialogue and action scenes very well, but whenever he gets his descriptive hat on you get a sense of someone slightly overreaching himself – we get lots of mentions of ‘the psalm of her hair’ and ‘the archery of her mouth’, and my gut reaction was ‘what on Earth are you on about.’ Roberts’ slightly overenthusiastic approach to this sort of thing gets its fullest expression in the Bad Sex Scenes he occasionally includes – ‘our tongues writhed and pulsated in their caves of pleasure,’ he helpfully informs the reader, as one amorous interlude gets underway. Maybe that gets you in the mood; I just want to go ‘ugh’.

Beyond this, not a chapter goes by without Roberts making multiple portentous declarations about What It Is All About – Every dead body is a temple in ruins. Every door is a portal to both the past and the future. Now, he does occasionally come up with some very good lines – ‘some truths don’t make us love the world more, but they help us to hate it less’, for instance. But I found a lot of this wisdom to be Reader’s Digest-standard and not nearly as profound as Roberts appears to think it is: things frequently get just a bit pretentious. It also seems to smack of a certain level of self-regard – we are frequently reminded that Shantaram‘s semi-autobiographical hero is an outlaw, a gangster, a tough man, a man of peace, a writer (other characters occasionally come up to him and tell him what a good writer he is, even though this has zero bearing on the plot) – luckily we’re never told what a humble and modest chap he is, because that really would be pushing it.

So I was never really able to fully commit to Shantaram – ‘to enfold my heart in the quiet wisdom of its many pages’, as Roberts might possibly put it – even as I enjoyed its colour and vibrancy. It’s an interesting and extremely readable book, very funny in places and occasionally quite moving. But too often it almost feels like Paulo Coelho trying to write Goodfellas – a promising epic adventure-thriller frequently sidetracked by philosophical and poetic discursions which are not really all that insightful. But the ratio of impressive storytelling to pretentious waffle is good enough to make this worth a look, I would say.

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