Shantaram Book Review: Lunchtime Lit
Updates from my Rolling Reading Room
After slogging through The Brothers Karamazov on my half hour postal lunch break, I was in need of another read of epic proportions that would keep me occupied for several weeks in the half hour intervals I spend parked beneath one of only two shade trees on my route. Fortunately my son is even more of an obsessive book addict than I am, and he had just the solution to assuage my acute literary withdrawal. One evening at the Goodwill used book store he picked up the book Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, and unexpectedly dropped it in my lap. Of course, there is nothing more delightful for a father than an unsolicited gift from one of his usually thankless, thoughtless offspring, and it wasn't even my birthday or father's day!
After a superficial scrutiny, I could see that the tome certainly met the voluminous requirement, topping out at nearly 1000 pages, but because I had never heard of the novel or the author I naturally had to ask a few tough questions, if for no other reason than to carry out my primary paternal duty to keep my offspring humble.
"Trust me Dad, you're going to like it," my son assured me after I went through a litany of questions that all basically fell into the what the hell is this? category. "This is a great book," he said. "I lent it to a friend who never reads, and he couldn't put it down."
Not sure whether my son was implying that if an attention deficit, semi illiterate friend could enjoy this book, then it was just the thing for dear old loveable simpleton Dad, I gave him a suspicious look and hauled the heavy novel off to work to begin the weeks long process of conquering it in half hour assaults. My verdict of this tale of an Australian fugitive hiding from the law and his past in the dark, dirty slums and criminal underworld of Bombay was primarily a pleasurable one, but there were elements of the story that stretched the suspension of disbelief and poetic license rights that a novelist is normally entitled to. Furthermore, the widespread opinion that Mr. Roberts took considerable liberties with his own true life story as a fugitive somewhat diluted my enjoyment of the tale and has also caused a bit of popular controversy. The bad press surrounding the novel seems to have gained steam lately because of the notoriety surrounding the planned movie version.
Lunchtime Lit - Shantaram Recap
A convicted bank robber using the alias Lindsay Ford escapes from an Australian prison and makes his way to Mumbai, which is still referred to by its former colonial name of Bombay throughout the book, probably because the name change did not take place until 1995. Here Linbaba, as the author's beloved friend and guide Prabaker christens him, lives in the city's sprawling slums for a time, where he provides first aid treatment to the residents of this makeshift shanty town. Eventually a local mob boss takes notice of him and Lin (the shortened form of his nickname) works himself into the good graces of a powerful crime syndicate, losing dear friends, colleagues, and lovers along the way. During the course of the novel, Linbaba also explores the philosophical implications of his criminal and personal deeds; pondering whether a man can change his own fate, and if it is truly possible to do wrong things for the right reasons.
Will the Real "Linbaba" Please Stand Up! - My Conclusions
There is no doubt that Shantaram is a brilliantly written and sometimes beautifully poetic novel in which the pages fly by faster than I can brush my falling lunch crumbs off of them. The book also takes fascinating forays into the realm of philosophy, exploring a mysterious but viable "resolution theory" that includes an idea termed "tendency toward complexity," a phenomenon described by a surprisingly intellectual crime lord in the story as the essence of God. None of these metaphysical digressions are ponderous, but seem to enhance the soul searching character development of Lin, taking this novel out of the pulp fiction category and up to a point where it flirts with becoming real literature.
All the same, I walked away from the 46 half hour lunch breaks I spent in the company of this book with the feeling that, while the novel attempts to cut deep into the nature of the human condition, it doesn't really inflict much more than a flesh wound to the soul. The problem is that the mighty Linbaba, although styling himself as a humble, repentant wrongdoer whose heroin addiction forced the breakup of his family in Australia and pushed him into a life of crime, doesn't really come across as humble or repentant at all. His painted on humility is as cosmetic as the sleek Bombay skyscrapers that hide the ugly scar of its impoverished slums deep among them.
The fact is that I just couldn't accept that Linbaba did all the things that he gave himself credit for, even after generously allowing for the suspension of disbelief that is normally allocated to the novelist. Although the author boldly broadcasts his work as being autobiographical in nature, I'm still willing to cut Mr. Roberts some slack on the basis of the book's fictional status. Even if the tale is purely a flight of invented fancy, however, I just don't find Linbaba to be a particularly interesting or believable character. He's just too perfect and unblemished for my taste.
I'll give you a sampling here of the superhuman deeds carried out by the heroic Linbaba. First we see the mighty Linbaba humbly and meekly lowering himself to live in the filthy, fetid, festering slums of Bombay, where he sets up a medical clinic for its inhabitants. Next there's the all powerful Linbaba almost single-handedly treating a cholera epidemic that decimates those slums after a heavy monsoon rain. Over yonder behold the indomitable Linbaba being brutally tortured and starved to death in an Indian prison; refusing to cave in under conditions in which most of us would have long ago sold our own mothers downriver. And then don't blink or you'll miss the magnificent Linbaba fighting to the death for his gangster friends, even though they are essentially a bunch of murderous thugs, no matter how pretty Mr. Roberts paints them. Oh, I almost forgot that the multi-talented Linbaba also works part time as a Bollywood producer. Finally, as if that's not enough, behold the international most wanted fugitive Mr. Linbaba off to infiltrate his way into Afghanistan to take on the unassailable forces of the occupying Russian army. It's all a bit much for one hero in one book, and it serves to lessen the believability of the story. It's almost as if the ex con author has written this book to convince his parole board that he's a changed man, not to make his protagonist a likeable or realistic character.
The other problem I have with Linbaba is that he can't quite decide whether he is going to play the role of Mother Theresa Saint or El Chapo Guzman sinner. In one scene he sacrifices sleep for days to heal the illnesses of the homeless and impoverished and in the next he is brutally gouging out the eyeballs of anybody who is unfortunate enough to cross him. Will the real Linbaba please stand up!
Read Shantaram - Give it Your Own Review!
While there is no disputing that novelist Gregory David Roberts was indeed a bank robber and a successful prison escapee who managed to make his way to Bombay with a fake passport, there are other elements of this semi-autobiographical novel that have been denounced as lies by the real people portrayed in the book. I suppose that by designating Shantaram as a work of fiction, however, Roberts can fall back on the "all characters in this book are fictitious" defense to answer the charges of fact distortion that have been leveled against him.
On Shantaram's Wikipedia page (the veracity of which Roberts disputes), the real life brother of Prabaker, Linbaba's cheerful companion and guide, is cited as claiming that apart from running a free clinic in the slums, Roberts actually lived a life of crime and drug addiction from which the Khare family eventually rescued him. Kishore Khare further asserts that from time to time when the now famous and prestigious author Roberts shows up in the slums for photo ops with celebrities like Oprah, Madonna and Johnny Depp, the slum guards have to hold back the outraged crowds that are offended by the alleged falsehoods depicted in the book.
In 2011, another Hub Pages author wildchild1962 composed an article based on an email Gregory David Roberts actually sent him which refutes the accusations that have been leveled against him. Rather than write off as fiction the novel's rather unbelievable assertion that he participated in the Afghanistan conflict, Roberts claims that the reason he is not allowed into the United States is because of his former involvement with the Afghani mujaheddin fighters. I will post a link to this fascinating Hub Pages article a little farther down the page.
Apart from Wikipedia I couldn't really find any other sources that dispute Roberts' version of events, so perhaps the mighty Linbaba really did accomplish all of the heroic deeds he lays claim to.
A film version of Shantaram, a project that has been bandied about ever since the novel became an international bestseller in 2003, is supposedly still in the works, but has been recast with cheaper actors. Johnny Depp apparently demanded too much money for a film with no projected toy sales to fall back on, even though the amazing Linbaba seems to be able to leap mountains in a single bound and might work great as an action figure. The sequel to the Shantaram novel, titled The Mountain Shadow, is scheduled for release in October of this year, being part of a trilogy narrating Roberts' flight from the law, the still unwritten first part to deal with his experiences in the Australian prison system before his escape.
As for me, what's next is that I'm currently shopping around for another novel of epic proportions to consume my daily half hour respite beneath my favorite tree. This probably means raiding my son's book stash, a criminal enterprise of my own that I will undertake just as I soon as I punctuate the last sentence on this Shantaram review.