Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

I asked for it. I asked someone, as is my custom when I'm getting to know someone, what his favorite book was. He said Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and I ordered it from the library that evening. He said he never even liked reading until he read this book.  Why, that's quite an endorsement! Why, it's a book I've never heard of! Why, it meets one of the requirements for the 2018 Read Harder Challenge! Why, this is great!

It's 933 pages is what it is; 250 pages of those are tedious and mind numbing, too.  But then something happened to me. I just couldn't stop reading it. I was late getting dinner started because I just wanted ONE MORE CHAPTER. I was huddling under the blanket after Dr. BB turned off the lights because I just had to get figure out how our narrator was going to get out of this mess. It just somehow turned into a delicious soap opera. 

From the slums of Bombay to the mountains of Afghanistan to the prisons of Australia, this rambling epic is mostly just us wandering about aimlessly with our narrator who occasionally has a purpose in life but more often than not seems to be most just existing. Apparently Roberts actually DID escape an Australian prison and lived as a fugitive for more than a decade, so I lot of the material I was calling hogwash at the beginning was actually kind of true.  

I'm not sure that I can even articulate actual themes from this novel. Roberts seems to think he's quite profound, but his philosophical treatises told from the point of view of the various father figures in the book, are simultaneously overly simple and bombastic.  After my initial reluctance to engage with it, I just found myself more or less enjoying it the way I would enjoy an action movie. Pick one character at a time to follow and once that character inevitably leaves, through death or separation, pick a new character to follow.  It was like watching General Hospital through the lens of being Tracy Quartermaine's (I just had to google Tracy v. Tracey - these are the tribulations of our time) greatest fan. 

This novel seems quite polarizing on Goodreads. Look, I think Roberts is a little stuck on himself. I think he thinks he's a better writer than he is. I think the novel could have been 50% as long as it was. But at the same time, some of the digressions and plot-lines that lead nowhere were fun and engaging. Roberts' overblown sentence composition became a game I could play when I was reading (how many ways can he describe this guy's smile? his teeth? his black hat?).  And I get why this picaresque would appeal to my acquaintance who loves this book. 

Are the kind of person who likes reading about roguish rascals who perambulate around the world committing acts of various degrees of criminality and immorality all the while opining about the evilness of the world? Then this book is for you. Do you like your protagonists to take actions that make sense and have a clear moral compass?  Then this book is most definitely not for you.  It is polarizing because it was written for a definite audience. I'm not sure that I myself am part of that audience, but I can appreciate this for what it is.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think "overblown sentences" make someone a bad writer, or someone who "thinks he's a better writer than he is." I think you prefer more minimalist writing. I think good writers can use as many adjectives and adverbs as they desire. And it doesn't mean a thing about how good of a writer they are. Some people prefer prosaic writing and some don't. It's not a good or bad thing.


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