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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Shantaram: finished

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. That in itself is a significant compliment, since I do not finish most books, especially novels, that I start reading, and Shantaram is 933 pages long. I see on Amazon.com that it has attracted 79 reviews to date, and every reviewer apparently gives it a full five stars--the top rating. I too would give it five stars. Mr. Roberts must feel very gratified at such a response; any writer would.

Although I would issue a five-star rating, the novel has its problems, as does any book. I have talked about some of my reasons for enjoying this book in previous posts, such as here and here. There is much to admire. First, and most of all, Roberts's view of life as important: an arena where important things happen. He confronts issues such as love, evil, death, torture, and redemption head-on, and presents a world where these things plausibly arise: India (especially Bombay) of the 1970s and 80s, and in particular its underworld of poverty and crime--a world that Roberts knows at first hand from the time he spent there on the lam from the Australian authorities after escaping from prison there.

Second, his characters. Shantaram is densely populated with characters (I had a hard time keeping track of them all), and they are all vividly presented. Indeed, there is a superabundance: characters would be introduced with powerful descriptive strokes, and then would hardly appear in the story again. It's as though Roberts can't resist giving each character his or her poetic due, even if they are but walk-ons in his story. His main characters are impressively realized, multidimensional, and capable of unexpected words and actions. He sees them all through a certain romantic haze, especially the women, who are mostly beautiful, although always in very individual ways: they are people first, unlike the routine eye-candy of the typical bestseller. It's as though the main character and narrator Lin is enchanted with women and unable to describe them in any other way but as one enchanted. An example:

Ulla was dressed for work in a small, tight, black, halter-neck dress, fishnet stockings, and stiletto-heel shoes. She wore eye-dazzling fake diamonds at her throat and ears. The contrast between her clothing and Lettie's was stark. Lettie wore a fine, bone-coloured brocade jacket over loose, dark-brown satin culottes, and boots. Yet the faces of the two women produced the strongest and most unexpected contrast. Lettie's gaze was seductive, direct, self-assured, and sparkling with ironies and secrets, while Ulla's wide blue eyes, for all the make-up and clothing of her professional sexuality, showed nothing but innocence--honest, vacuous innocence.

That's all fine with me: I positively like the romanticism of Lin's character, and pretty much share it myself. I found myself wishing he'd do more with some of the characters--but that's another issue.

Third, Roberts fills his book with authentic incident and detail: his world rings true. And it is a phantasmagoric, exotic world, gorgeous, grim, and fascinating. Roberts exudes authority, which is always riveting. It's a novel, but these are things he has witnessed.

(Shantaram, by the way, is a name bestowed on Lin by the women in the village where he stays for a few months. It means "man of peace".)

My main hesitation with the novel is, as always, at the level of story. It is actually a mystery plot: Lin eventually wants to learn the truth about two of the most important characters in his life: the Swiss-American beauty Karla, with whom he is in love, and the Muslim mobster Khader, who takes Lin under his wing and introduces him to the criminal world of Bombay. The story is actually quite simple, and it develops only very slowly. Lin has his hands full with many urgent things in the meantime. Lin himself, wrapped up in his own world, is slow to realize that he lacks important information about those around him, so he is not really a sleuth. It's more that information is delivered to him when he is ready for it, the final pieces not till the end. I found this structure a bit contrived, a bit far-fetched, and also a bit underpowered. It does move slowly--I suppose like the Ganges.

There is much more that could be said about this book--and maybe I will. Despite my quibbles, it puts in the shade just about everything else being written now, as far as I can tell. My survey of the bookstore, in which I wound up buying Shantaram, certainly suggested as much. How many of us writers have been addicted to heroin, robbed banks, been imprisoned, escaped, lived in a Bombay slum, worked for the Bombay mafia, fought in Afghanistan, or been tortured in an Indian prison? I sure haven't--but Gregory David Roberts has. Such a man has something to say, and in Shantaram he's said it.

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  • I think I'll add that to my ever increasing To Buy list. Too bad there's so not a love affair between that list and my bank account, ;-)

    By Blogger Gabriele C., at January 16, 2006 5:25 PM  

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