Wednesday, December 3, 2014

SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts

A book has to be special to keep me interested for over 900 pages.  The Goldfinch was special, but this book is not.  In fact, it is to India what The Power of One is to South Africa—too long, too tedious, and too self-aggrandizing.  Lin is an Australian ex-heroin-addict in the 1980s who escaped from an Australian prison where he was serving time for armed robbery.  He amasses enough forged documents to transport himself to Bombay, where he encounters a colorful group of expats and makes a living connecting foreigners to drug dealers.  A mugging leaves him broke, and he moves into an illegal slum near his beloved Indian friend Prabaker.  Lin changes gears and starts dispensing first aid to his fellow slum dwellers but also strikes up a relationship with a local Afghani crime boss, who has his own agenda in his homeland.  An unknown betrayer sends Lin back to prison but this time in India, where conditions are beyond deplorable and wildly dangerous.  Lin survives all of this and lots, lots more.  I accept that there’s a lot of ground to cover here, but I don’t think the book would suffer if it were cut in half, although I still would not have loved it.  The characters are impossible to keep track of, partly because there are so many of them and partly because some of the names are so similar—Khaled and Khader, for example.  Judging from the author’s blurb, this novel is somewhat autobiographical, but I have to say that he paints himself as being almost superhuman in his ability to survive.  There are only 3 women characters of note, all three of whom may be prostitutes, and none of whom come across as real, three-dimensional women.  One plot device that I particularly did not like was that the author/narrator would frequently express his regret about how he reacted to a situation by warning us that his oversights would come back to haunt him later.  Lin, though, is quite three-dimensional himself, sharing with us his remorse, guilt, lust, pride, pain, vengefulness, and gratitude, through a series of perilous adventures.  I will say that the author has a very good ear for dialog, especially that of the English-speaking Indians, and I had to go to YouTube to see a demonstration of that Indian head waggle.

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