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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, December 02, 2005

Shantaram: midcourse reader's report

Outside, a thin layer of snow, growing ever so gradually thicker as tiny flakes flutter thinly down.

Last night I finished Part One (of five) of Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, the Australian convict-turned-Bombay-slum-dweller-turned-novelist. I'm on page 169 of 936 of the St. Martin's Griffin trade paperback, and I'm happy to report that I'm enjoying the read.

It's not because of the storytelling, because I think that Roberts is not a particularly experienced or trained storyteller. In 169 pages we have had only a handful of events that could be called plot-points. In many ways the real story seems to have begun only on page 142, when the narrator-protagonist, the escaped New Zealand convict Lin (who has been given the name Shantaram, "man of peace", by newly made Indian friends) gets mugged, leaving him both penniless and unable to approach the authorities for help, due to his criminal status. With this, the character acquired what could be called a true story problem, with the arising in this reader's mind of the question, Uh-oh, how's he going to deal with this?

What keeps me reading is that other aspects of the book are so strong and so unusual. For one thing, there's the knowledge that the story is mainly autobiographical, so there is the sense of realism and unexpectedness in the world he portrays. Roberts writes with apparent authority about India--a place I know little about, and have mainly stereotypical ideas about. I find my stereotypical ideas about India being bulldozed again and again as I read: a truly pleasurable experience, since we don't read things just to find what we expect. We want authentic novelty, and Roberts serves this up nonstop. Roving from downtown Bombay to an Indian village to a city slum, Roberts gives a vivid, closely observed, firsthand account of his impressions. They register as authentic, and lend his book that quality I so admire that I call richness: the sense that the details available to the writer are vastly more numerous than what he is able to show, and so the ones presented suggest the many others not expressed.

Next: his characters and characterization. These are very good: the characterizations are vivid and unexpected. He is able to portray Indian characters as genuine and yet very non-Western people, a continual thrill to read. I am reminded more than anything of reading A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry back in 2001--another large novel about India, by a native Indian. Roberts's work compares favorably so far.

One of the most appealing aspects of the book is its tone. Roberts is writing about a tough, streetwise, fugitive criminal who finds himself among the Indian underworld. What I expect is tough, gritty writing with a menacing, violent edge. What I get is a tough world seen through sensitive, poetic, and even romantic eyes. Lin (and Roberts I suppose) is intensely romantic, romanticizing people and places (as for instance his description of the Swiss-American woman Karla that I extracted in an earlier post). Again and again he seems to have the experience of what James Joyce called "aesthetic arrest"--the sense of being stopped in one's tracks by an experience of beauty, and moved to a higher plane of seeing such that one is able to create genuine art. Roberts's descriptive art is not at Joyce's level, of course, but he gives it all he's got again and again. He goes for it. I like it: his tone is not "sophisticated", but it's perceptive and intelligent and passionate. He's a sincere man who's had strong experiences and is reporting them to us.

The character Lin himself is an asset. He is, like all good protagonists, a contradictory character. He embodies the qualities of criminal toughness and poetic romanticism, and this makes him ever interesting. He narrates as though he is a simple, uncomplicated guy, an observer, rather self-deprecating, and yet again and again I have been surprised by him. My own view is that, possibly because Lin is based on Roberts himself, Roberts has underestimated Lin's uniqueness and paradoxical qualities, with all the power these suggest for storytelling.

Lastly, and most importantly for me, Roberts narrates with the conviction that life is a place where important things happen: that what we do and feel and believe matter. Life is where our values are discovered and tested, often at great cost. He is an antidote to the frivolity of the great mass of contemporary fiction-writing. Though light in tone and often funny, he takes life seriously. I appreciate that, because I'm dying before too long--and so are you.

A perfect book? No, far from it. But page for page, Shantaram compares favorably with what else is out there. Roberts suffered to write this book (written over 13 years, largely in prison, with Roberts's blood literally on the paper), and the result is accordingly worth our attention. No regrets.

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