Shantaram: A Novel by Gregory David Roberts was both the best novel I’ve read in a long time and the longest novel I’ve read in a long time (942 pages) and I am excited to share my approbation for such a well told story.
The story is a first person narrative about an escaped convict from Australia that is doing time for armed robbery crimes committed to support his heroin habit. (Heavy stuff and all which is learned in the first few pages so I’m not spoiling anything for anyone.) After escaping prison, he finds himself in Bombay, India trying to not get caught and trying to make a life again. Throughout the nearly 1000 pages, he has myriad experiences from the Indian mafia to wars in Afghanistan to slum life in Bombay to romance with other Westerners on the run. Along this journey, he grows as a person, learning from his actions and from the amazing people around him. He learns about and articulates the intangibles in life like love, friendship, power, honor, and death. It is a story that touches so many areas and emotions that it is bound to reach most readers in some way.
Though it is a joy to read, it is not perfect and he doesn’t quite reach the likes of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky in my amateur rating scales. My biggest criticism – and it is not a major one – is that he often gets too grandiose with his descriptions of the intangibles. Chapters would often finish with a statement about love, what it was or wasn’t, in a way fitting for a love song, but written with the pretensions of knowledge about the thing in itself. My criticism may be misplaced due to cynicism regarding actual knowledge on these types of subjects however and some may find the passages I’m referring to very powerful and meaningful to them.
In that vein, I certainly did find ideas that resonated really well with me. There was a great deal about character, life experience, and getting to really understand diverse opinions and people in order to know oneself better that really hit the nail on the head for me. Speaking of some of the slum-dwellers the narrator spent much of his time with he says, “The only kingdom that makes any man a king is the kingdom of his own soul. The only power that has any real meaning is the power to better the world” (pg 905). While we could quibble about the soul and what that is, the general idea of what is actually important to oneself and to the world rings very true for me. The author was able to do this far more often than he was able to lose me on his grander claims and I really appreciated this aspect of the book.
I also loved the portrait of India. I have been interested, fascinated, down right enamored with India since my freshman year of high school when we watched the movie Gandhi in World History class. Since that time, I have read about India and Gandhi, taken further courses in school, taken a serious liking to their cuisine, and befriended many good Indians that have all graciously and encouragingly pushed me to spend time in their native country. I shared the same view as our friend Penny (our host in Mexico that told me about Shantaram), that after reading the book, I too wanted to live in the slums of Bombay. The people, the culture, and the values described so vividly in the book only served to further my desire to spend part of my life in India.
And the story is simply awesome. This guy gets into so many wild situations, some of his own doing and some just downright amazing. The descriptions of the people he meets and their character are very rich and led to good introspection topics for me while I was reading. The love stories, the betrayals, the violence, and the tales of camaraderie and compassion were all very moving and real. The chapters were long (I’m a slow reader) but I’d inevitably find myself pushing on to another chapter because I wanted to know what would happen next.
While I may be somewhat of a curmudgeon of a reviewer and sometimes too critical, this book passes with flying colors. I highly encourage people to read it, whether for the story itself, the portrait of a fascinating country, or the thoughtful prose on some of life’s richest ideas; well worth the time and money. Thank you Gregory David Roberts for such an enjoyable story.