Bad karma. This book makes me think of bad karma. Mostly exhausting, not adventurous.
As I battled my way through this book’s 944 pages, I gleefully contemplated the negative review I would compose. It can be maddening. And yet, since I have finished it, I find it coming frequently to mind. It has made its mark on me.
So, in the end, I give this book 4 stars, but subtract an additional one for its crazy length: 3 stars. Reader beware! There are treasures within, but also a great deal of drudgery and pain.
It has an “unreliable author problem.” As others have lamented, it should have been a memoir. The author Gregory David Roberts, is very similar to the protagonist of the book. He too is a criminal, born in Australia, jailed in New Zealand, who fled to India for 10 years to hide from the law.
In the end I realized that writing this was a form of psychotherapy for him, and we are along for the ride. Obsessed with his past, he drags us through it. If it had been a memoir, the extra constraint to be truthful, would have helped. Instead, he has allowed himself to romanticize an adventure story of his life, although painful regret inevitably catches up to show the lie.
The first half was best. I enjoyed his arrival in India and, especially, his description of the slum, the “zhopadpatti,” where he moved to save money and be able to live in India indefinitely without a visa. He describes the Indians with great zest and life. For example, I had never heard of the “Indian head bob”–but based on his description I found this adorable video. Learning more about India, via any means, is one of the pleasures of this book. Gruesome descriptions of violence and crime are another, if this is enjoyable for you. But why not just watch “The Godfather?”
But, the negatives of the book rear up and I found myself constantly questioning why, oh why, was I reading it?
For example, conversation so transparent it reminds of the movie The Room:
She died last week, Lin. My mother died last week.’ He turned to me, and the whites of his eyes were blazing with the tears he wouldn’t let them shed. ‘She died last week. And now, I’m getting married.’ ‘I’m sorry to hear about your mother, Johnny. But I’m sure she’d want you to get married. I think you’ll make a good father. In fact, I know you’ll make a good father. I’m sure of it.’
— Shantaram: A Novel (pp. 523-524).
The one and only time that I saw the whole of the truth in his eyes—on a snow-covered mountain called Sorrow’s Reward— it was already too late, and I never saw it again.
— Shantaram: A Novel (p. 550).
Wise pronouncements which, become harder and harder to take seriously, given the source:
When all the guilt and shame for the bad we’ve done have run their course, it’s the good we did that can save us. But then, when salvation speaks, the secrets we kept, and the motives we concealed, creep from their shadows. They cling to us, those dark motives for our good deeds. Redemption’s climb is steepest if the good we did is soiled with secret shame.
— Shantaram: A Novel (p. 563).
However, some of his experiments are very successful. Some of my favorites were:
A powerful description of slum justice administered to a drunk who beat his wife.
The best description I have ever read of what its like to be high on Heroin.
Likewise, wonderful advice on how to win a knife fight:
His second mistake was that he held the knife as if it was a sword and he was in a fencing match. A man uses an underhand grip when he expects his knife, like a gun, to do the fighting for him. But a knife isn’t a gun, of course, and in a knife fight it isn’t the weapon that does the fighting: it’s the man. The knife is just there to help him finish it. The winning grip is a dagger hold, with the blade downward, and the fist that holds it still free to punch. That grip gives a man maximum power in the downward thrust and an extra weapon in his closed fist.
— Shantaram: A Novel (p. 563).
There’s no denying this book is alive, vibrant, you can “taste the sweat on its skin,” so to speak. But the struggle to psychologically deal with the author is exhausting and the content is crazy long with very mixed quality. It needs more than an editor, it also needs a psychotherapist. Or, another few rounds on the wheel of karma.