I am truly pleased that I have moved forward in 2015 with the intention of listening to more audiobooks, because I feel that I would not have been able to either get through or enjoy Shantaram to the level I did if I simply read the paper version. The paperback version of the book clocks in at nearly a thousand pages – heck the audio version is 43 hours long and took me two months to listen to (although I did take a break to listen to The Guns of August in the meantime). But, there was something about the protagonist Lin, very much a stand in for author Gregory David Roberts, and his continuing search for what it means to be good, and how to live a good life when you’ve seemingly made too many bad choices that pulled me in, that, and the author’s very obvious love, and to some extent infatuation, with Mumbai.
Shantaram also appears to be a book that readers either love or hate. Goodreads is littered with 1 star diatribes and 5 star fawning reviews. I fall closer to the five star end of the spectrum, but I don’t find myself fawning over the work. I’m not about to start proselytizing about this book to passers-by. But I will bend your ear for a few minutes about the story that came to my attention via The Mama’s review.
Gregory David Roberts, a former convict who escaped from prison and fled to Bombay where he lived in the slums, started a free medical clinic and joined the mafia, in Shantaram writes a book about a guy who escapes from prison and flees to Bombay where he lives in the slums, starts a free medical clinic and joins the mafia. Theoretically this shouldn’t work. It should feel thin; it should reek of by-the-numbers storytelling. And sometimes it does. But more often than not Shantaram reads as one man’s struggle to find the decent portion of his self over the course of terrible choices. There is a phrase that gets repeated over and over again through the course of the narrative – the wrong thing for the right reasons. Lin repeatedly does the wrong thing for the right reasons, and we as the reader join him on the journey that those choices make for him.
Another detraction against the book is that we are viewing the world of mid 1980s Bombay from the eyes of a white middle class man from Australia, and at times the way Roberts described Indians in this book could come off as bad caricatures – there is the over-friendly and smiling, trusting, etc. I can see that issue, but Roberts also inserts instances after instance of Lin realizing that he was bringing his own prejudices to the table. Roberts is winking and nudging the reader into realizing that while Lin is our entry into this world, he is not infallible. He is exactly the opposite. The other complaint that I’ve seen that didn’t affect me was the way the Indian dialect was written out in the books. Since I listened to the audio book I never saw the vernacular. Humphrey Bower, who does the narration of the audio book, did a fantastic job of capturing the various accents and dialects that come from a story of an Australian, posing on and off as either a New Zealander or an American (poorly), which also featured characters who were Germans, Italians, French, Indians, Iranians, Pakistani, or Afghan. Occasionally one Iranian character might sound like the next, but in reality the characters were well defined. With one small exception – the women. Bower’s reading of Karla, Lin’s German ex-pat American raised love interest was pretty awful. But I got used to it. Although when she was off-page for a while and would return I’d chuckle all over again.
I realize that I am talking to you about all the things others have complained about but not why I liked the book. I loved the scope of the work. This wasn’t a slice of life tale, things weren’t quickly or neatly wrapped up, there was the evidence of real life, and the quirky nature of that realness, interspersed throughout the pages. There were also moments of great clarity, of nuggets of wisdom, or self-reflection. And there were plenty of characters to invest in and care about. I am also a bit of a sucker for sweeping work, covering human failings, frailties, love, and loss.
It certainly isn’t a perfect book. As I mentioned the audio of this clocks in at 43 hours. It’s nearly two solid days of listening. Its long. And there are portions that I would have cut, or cut down. I want the hours I spent listening to surviving (or not) in the Afghan mountains back. Yes, moving the story there accomplishes something necessary for the overall meaning of the narrative (what can we really trust from our parent figures), but lord almighty did it take too long. There were also times where the physically brutality of the story was too much. I had to take breaks after time spent with the characters in Arthur Road prison or after a series of character deaths. I was feeling it all too much, or too closely. But that is also the power of a well written book read by a gifted narrator. In many ways I felt as if I was being told the story by a passenger in my car, not by a book playing through my sound system via my audible account. Which is I think the highest praise I can give an audiobook.
There is a second book by Roberts being published this year, eleven years after the publication of Shantaram featuring Lin and his continuing adventures. It’s another long one, if Goodreads is to be trusted. I find that I am interested to see where else Roberts has to take us with Lin, but I think I’ll be waiting a little while and probably only seeking it out is Bower is reading it to me.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.