Book Review: SHANTARAM, by Gregory David Roberts

When my dad told me that SHANTARAM was the best book he'd read in months, I knew I had to read it, right away. See, my dad reads even more than I do, and "best book in months" is very high praise coming from him, because he can read an awful lot of books in just a few months--for him to call SHANTARAM the best book he'd read in months is roughly the equivelent to a normal person saying it was the best book they'd read this year.

To have an idea of what SHANTARAM is about, you need to know a little about Gregory David Roberts: he was sentenced to nineteen years in an Australian prison for a series of armed robberies; he later escaped from prison and spent ten years on the run in Bombay. What happens in Bombay is more or less what SHANTARAM is about, and the fact that the book is based loosely on the author's life is probably a saving grace, because though SHANTARAM is a novel, not a memoir, the autobiographical aspect of the book lends it some crediblility that serves the story well. Without that credibility, I don't think I'd believe a word Roberts says.

The events of the book are so bizarre, so relentless and brutal, that the things this guy does, and things that are done to him, border on the unbelievable. I mean this in a good way, but if a novelist tried to convince me that all of that stuff actually happened to a fictional character I'd roll my eyes and laugh. The fact that some of this stuff (and more) verifyably happened to Roberts makes me take the whole book a lot more seriously--and kept me reading with wide eyes.

(I must warn you, though: don't go looking Roberts up until you're a good way into the book, unless you want to know the key points of what happens. You might look up a photo of him, if you like. That's entertaining.)

So what was so fascinating about SHANTARAM? Why, the main character. Lin is one hell of a character, that's for sure, and though I still don't know what to make of him, I like him. Most of the other characters were incredibly strong as well, especially Prabaker, Abdullah, Didier, and Khader Khan. I won't lie, though--I never cared much for Karla.

It did take me awhile to get into Roberts' writing style (he's really into reflections on the nature of love and freedom and so on; also, some of his metaphors took a little getting used to), but by the end of all 900 pages, he'd won me over, not least because he managed to resolve everything so well. I have to admit that, with all the plotlines, sub-plotlines and sub-sub-plotlines, I was skeptical that he'd be able to bring everything together at the end of the book, but he did. The book ended well, and I was glad.

Do I think this book is for everyone? No. Do I think you should read it anyway? Definately. It's a good one. Also, there's a rumor that Johnny Depp will be producing the movie version soon, and I sincerely hope that he takes the role of Didier and not the role of Lin. He would be an excellent Didier, but a terrible Lin.



Final_Take said...

It was a boring airport bookstall where I found this book, and it got my attention immdly, I have started reading and I should say it has a very good narative and a strong characterisation of all the characters.

Anonymous said...

Awful book, full of purple prose (the description of Lin and Karla making love for the first time is hilariuosly embarrassing) and ridiculous, self important philosophising.

Lin is some lind of cross between Rambo and Mother Teresa whose introspection and self-pity are a bit hard to swallow when compared to the real hardship that many slum dwellers suffer.

The most ridiculous character is Karla, a woman who is reduced to cold, secretive green eyed beauty who spouts pearls of wisdom for every ocassion. Khanderbhai is an out-and-out amoral sociopath and Prabaker is like a bad colonial caricature form the 1950s.

If the book had been confined to a 300 page novel about organised crime in India, it would be a thrilling read, instead it drowns in tedious moralising and navel gazing.

Hakuna Matata said...

I always imagined Didier to be a chubby guy. Somehow, Depp wouldnt be it.

I thought Amitabh Bachan would be a perfect Khaderbhai and John Abraham a good abdullah ( Indian actors both, look em up)

Having seen glimpses of Mumbai, somehow, the story isn't entirely unimaginable in the setting.

Benjamin said...

I just finished the book today... I found it on Harrison Street in San Francisco and just decided "what the hell I'll read it." It's excellent in that he sticks to a straight-forward, classic style. Only people who are telling a TRUE story (not merely factual) can get away with that for me these days. It does get pretty flowery but I was thinking that only a true romantic would be able to lead that kind of life anyway! Who else could keep going except someone who saw the beauty in it?! It's kick ass, best book...er novel I've read in a while and worth the nine hundered plus pages. -ben

Peter said...

Just finished it.
It is a good read, it held my interest all the way through and kept me up far too late some nights.
It's not perfect though. The blend of fiction and non-fiction was annoying at first, but ok once I got used to it. The descriptive writing is actually very good, but there is far, far, far too much of it. The psychology is also very good, the best aspect of the bok for me (the author must have experienced alot, you don't get this stuff from psychology testbooks). However, the attempts at philosophy are very, very bad, real angst-ridden teenager stuff, and partly based on an understanding of physics that is just plain wrong. 4/5