Thursday, September 24, 2020

Book 252: Shantaram

 "Personality and personal identity are in some ways like co-ordinates on the street map drawn by our intersecting relationships. We know who we are and we define what we are by references to the people we love and our reasons for loving them." 

Dates read: July 27- August 6, 2018

Rating: 5/10

If you had asked me where I'd be at 35 at virtually any point in my life, I 100% would not have said living in Reno, Nevada and working as a lobbyist. When I was in high school, I would have said probably in a major city practicing law, preparing for a career as a judge. In college, I would have waffled about maybe becoming a psychologist or academic, but probably still would have come down on the side of being a lawyer-looking-towards-the-judiciary. I wanted to be a prosecutor and then move onto the bench pretty much until the bottom fell out of the economy when I was in law school. With shrinking firm openings, even the kinds of public-sector jobs I'd had my eye on got super competitive, and for the first time I had to shift my dreams. That shift continued all the way until I got to where I am, and while it's worked out pretty damn well, it's nowhere near where I thought I'd be.

Of course, this is a pretty fortunate variant of the curveballs life can throw. The man who calls himself Lindsay "Lin" Ford (this is an alias, but we never get his real name) in Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram had a real switch-up. At one point, he was a typical suburban husband and father in Australia. Then he got into heroin, and then bank robbery, and then there was divorce and custody loss and prison. Facing a decades-long sentence in a high-security prison, he manages to escape and goes on the run, landing almost by chance in Mumbai with his forged passport and a chance decision to trust a street guide with a big smile changes his life all over again.

Lin's adventures in India are truly epic, from six months in his street-guide-turned-friend Prabakar's rural village, to living and working as a medic in one of the city's enormous slums, to Lin's passionate love for Karla, a beautiful and mysterious Swiss ex-pat, back to prison (in India this time), then into organized crime and even to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahideen. Along the way there's a shadowy, malevolent madam, a traintop marriage proposal, and Bollywood movies, among other things. It's sprawling, with countless side characters who appear and re-appear throughout. Lin's ability to proceed with cautious optimism keeps him generally lucky in both friendship and opportunity, but even that can't keep him safe from tragedy.

The book is based heavily on Roberts' own his protagonist, he was an Australian addict-turned-robber who escaped from prison and lived for several years in India. While some characters are, in fact, entirely created, several (including Prabakar and his family) are actual people who Roberts did know in India but whose stories he may have rendered somewhat less than faithfully. It walks a fine line between obvious invention/fantasy (the scene in which Lin and Karla finally sleep together has them running into each other's arms while a thunderstorm rages around them and I literally laughed at how ridiculous it was though it was not at all meant to be funny) and things it seems like we're meant to believe even though they are clearly ludicrous (like the idea that Lin has apparently has an extraordinary ability to know instantly if someone is a decent person and is almost immediately accepted and tightly bonded into every community he finds himself in).

If you're looking for a plot-driven adventure story and have a high tolerance for flowery language, this will likely be something you really enjoy! It can honestly be hard to focus on how silly some of the events in the book are because he generally keeps things moving quickly enough that you don't linger on them before Roberts takes you in a new direction. I'm not kidding about the prose style, though...I'm generally fairly tolerant and sometimes even enjoy work that tends towards the overwritten, but only about 100 pages into the nearly 950 of this book I was already rolling my eyes and it didn't get better from there. There's a very good 500-600 page book in here, but it would have taken some serious editing down of the often-trite philosophical patter Roberts constantly inserts, and honestly more development of Lin as a character. He's our protagonist and we spend all our time with him, but we actually know vanishingly little of his life before he was imprisoned in his home country. We get full backstories for several less important characters, which made it extra frustrating for Lin to be so unrooted. As I think is probably obvious by now, I didn't especially like this book, finding it only mediocre-to-average in quality and completely unworthy of its enormous length. But honestly I think if I had read it in my early-to-mid-20s, when my tolerance for "poignant" pronouncements about life was higher, I'd have liked it more. As is, though, I can't recommend it.

One year ago, I was reading: Soon The Light Will Be Perfect

Two years ago, I was reading: Ready Player One

Three years ago, I was reading: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Four years ago, I was reading: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

No comments:

Post a Comment