I’ve been meaning to write about my (mis)adventures with the book Shantaram for a few weeks. Here goes.
I received this book as a gift from my mom. She really enjoyed it, found it interesting, and thought I might too. For those that don’t know, the book is set in India (Bombay specifically) in the late 1970s. It is also the first book by the author Gregory David Roberts, and according to him is mostly auto-biographical.
I picked up this book with the best of intentions. I love to read. A good book is better than just about anything else. I will read just about anything that will keep my interest. Also, I am not one who will put a book down lightly. Something in me always makes me want to finish it, no matter how bad it is. I’ve only dropped maybe 3 or 4 books total in my life before the finish. Plus, I seem to be unable to skim forward in books either. In Tom Clancy’s The Sum Of All Fears, he spends WAY too much time describing in very minute detail just how the nuclear weapon the terrorists build is put together. I read every page. Bored out of my skull, but I didn’t want to miss anything. (Side note: years later I listened to the abridged book-on-tape, they pretty much just cut out all of that technical crap, I was amazed how well the story flowed). So, for me to stop reading this book, really tells you something. I got through page 600 or so and finally just gave up the ghost.
I have many problems with this book, beginning with the fact that it is 933 pages long. I have the oversized paperback version, and it still has to weigh 5 lbs. I tend to read in weird positions, and such a book really puts a damper on my ability to do that. Now, I don’t have a problem with long books. Quite the contrary. If a book needs that many pages to tell the story, go for it. For example, one of my all time favorite books, Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is 976 pages, and I still wished for more when it ended. However, the way Roberts makes use of these pages is what I have a problem with. I would read page after page after page where NOTHING HAPPENED. My mind would drift off as I’m reading because there is nothing to keep my attention. Be it descriptions of him walking around Bombay, or these interminable scenes of him and his “friends” in a cafe having discussions about their philosophy on life. Not only could I not keep the multiple characters straight in my head, I didn’t care enough about what they had to say anyway. Holy crap. Mind numbing. Had this book had 1/3rd of it cut out, it might not have been so bad.
But, now that I think about it, it probably would have been so bad. The author seems to be way too much in love with his words. Maybe the editor should have been a little more insistent with him. Allow me to give you an example of what I mean. The following is an excerpt from page 400. He is describing a sex scene (the only one I read in 600 pages, thank god). Don’t worry about this not being appropriate for the kiddies, like me, they probably have no friggin clue what he’s talking about:
“I pressed my lips against the sky, and licked the stars into my mouth. She took my body into hers, and every movement was an incantation. Our breathing was like the whole world chanting prayers. Sweat ran in rivulets to ravines of pleasure. Every movement was a satin skin cascade. Within the velvet cloaks of tenderness, our backs convulsed in quivering heat, pushing heat, pushing muscles to complete what minds begin and bodies always win. I was hers. She was mine. My body was her chariot and she drove it into the sun. Her body was my river, and I became the sea. And the wailing moan that drove our lips together, at the end, was the world of hope and sorrow that ecstasy wrings from lovers as it floods their souls with bliss.”
What the Fuck?!? Pardon my French but for god’s sake why? If you found that passage at all appealing, then you might enjoy his writing (and if so, don’t ever recommend a book for me…). I, for one, spent the lion’s share of my time reading wondering to myself WHY I continued to read.
My other major problem with this book is the story itself, and the character of the author. Being supposedly autobiographical, this guy has an unbelievable ego. The basic story is he is convicted to 19 years in Australian prison for burglary. He makes a daring and cunning escape, and flees to India and starts a new life. Ok, I could buy that. However, we are constantly bombarded with how great this guy is. He is always the smartest one in the room. Of all the non-Indians, he is the only one who can speak the “local” language of Marathi. A point which he beats us over the head with more than once. He is so smart and kind-hearted he sets up and runs a free medical clinic in the slum in which he lives. So, he’s smart AND giving. Wait, while in prison, he has withstood some of the most horribile torture you can imagine. He endured if for extended periods of time and never once “broke”. Never did anything that would make his life in prison easier (but would be considered snitching). Ok, so on the scoreboard we’ve got Smart, Giving, and Tough (mentally and physically). Oh, I almost forgot, he is the best fighter on the planet. Able to take down even the strongest and armed man using only his bare hands. Multiple gansters? No problem. Sneak attacks by the police or some Africans? Ho hum. So, again, we’ve got smartest, most generous, toughest, and badest. I nearly forgot, he is so charismatic that leaders of all types (legit and nefarious) all take him into their confidence and act as father figures to him. Trust him immediately. Teach him everything they know. And, of course, being so smart, blah blah blah, he is able to run any criminal enterprise to which he is assigned, and run it perfectly where none of his subordinates or bosses for that matter have any reason to be upset. Simply amazing. All of these points are hammered home MULTIPLE times throughout the book. He has his picture on the back of the book, and if I had to guess, I’d say he looks a lot more like a gay poetry-slam artist drinking espresso at Starbucks reading the Village Voice as opposed to a ex-mafia, multilingual, charismatic, international gun runner and bare handed killer. But that’s just me.
I read an online review (one of the few who didn’t absolutely love this book for some reason) who described it well. He likened the book to being trapped somewhere by some guy who keeps telling you these rambling tall-tales about their life, each one getting grander and grander as they go on. You sit there, trying not to encourage them but nodding and smiling politely and uttering the occasional “wow” or “really?” Until you realize, that this guy is completely full of shit and takes you for a gullible moron who is eating this stuff up. That’s what this book is. Granted, I’m not exactly familiar with the Bombay underworld, but I do have a healthy cynicism about what this guy says.
I’m wondering why there was such an outcry of anger about James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) supposedly making up stories in his book. Why no anger with Gregory David Roberts?
Anyway, I didn’t mean to write 1,300 words on this book. But, much like the book itself, criticism could not be contained in fewer words.
An altogether disappointing experience (as if you couldn’t tell…)