‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts

I haven’t read such a page-turner as Shantaram in a long time. I read the whole thing in about 2 or 3 weeks (including a day out of good reading time for Blink). Considering it’s 900-odd pages long, that’s pretty good for me; admittedly, it’s been a slow end to the year.

Shantaram is a fictional story heavily inspired by a hugely pivotal part of the author’s life. To summarise the gist of the story, Gregory David Roberts escaped from a Melbourne jail while serving a twenty year sentence and ended up India, where, alone and unknown, his past life was slowly stripped from him and he began a journey towards another life. There is a sometimes disconcerting contrast between the voice of the author and the actions of the character of the book. It can be a bit of a shock to read about gouging people’s eyes out after the author’s personal reflections on love and loneliness.

The fictionalisation of the story is part of what makes this book such an interesting read, but it’s the personal side that brings home the more philosophical moments. In broad brush strokes, this is obviously a novel that paints the picture of Roberts’ life at the time. His true story is amazing, and the life-changing effects on him are unmistakable (and indeed, emphasised in the book). Having worked with with Bombay mafia, however, he’s obviously writing fiction for the general detail of the story. Suspension of disbelief here gives the novel its immediate appeal, I think. Obviously the story itself is integral to the book. Without the personal side to buoy the narrative, however, the plot would probably be a little too neat and tidy, and yet in the end of it all the plot ends abruptly and finishes nowhere.

This is a book that, in softcover, has pages thin enough to make casual page turning harder than usual. From the author’s point of view, splitting the book in two probably makes no sense at all, because it’s the spread of experience that he’s working from to write the story and finishing it earlier would leave his emotional development unfinished.

Now, I can’t say that Roberts’ writing is perfect; I found he was occasionally over-enthusiastically profound; for example,

The truth is that, no matter what kind of game you find yourself in, no matter how good or bad the luck, you can change your life completely with a single thought or a single act of love.

But I forgive him due to his sincerity. After his experiences he’s allowed the exuberance.