Shantaram: A Novel by Gregory David Roberts
Gregory David Roberts (933 pages/St. Martin’s Griffin)
Shantaram parallels its author’s own true story of escaping a maximum security prison in Australia and living as a drug runner and passport forger in Bombay during the 1980’s. Roberts was eventually captured and forced to serve his 19 year sentence, where it took him “thirteen long and troubled years to write Shantaram. My hands, damaged by the residual effects of frostbite, suffered so badly during the winters in the punishment unit of the prison that many pages of the manuscript journal, which survived and which I still have with me, are stained and streaked with my blood.”
Shantaram is narrated by the protagonist Lin, who ends up living in a slum where he runs a makeshift medical clinic. His physical and philosophical struggles form the heart of the novel’s emotional thrust. Can someone be a good person after making many mistakes, or is it possible, “to do the wrong thing for the right reasons?” This moral argument becomes the lynchpin of the story and the heart of a deep conflict over where to invest a moral authority. Lin observes both fault and favor with society’s ways of dispensing justice, comparing the cruelty of the prison system with the communal compassion and punishment he sees meted out in the slums in Bombay, but all the while considering himself an outsider, no matter how desperately he wishes otherwise.
Shantaram is an uneven, messy book involving tens of characters, plotline after plotline, and the physical and emotional geography of what is essentially ten years worth of the author’s life, and the writing reflects that inconsistency. At its best moments, Shantaram is alive and eloquent with true self-expression, while at other times it collapses into cliché so groan-inducing it’s hard to believe the same author wrote these lines. In the end, it is a sense of the deep-down desperation of a man who must tell his story that keeps you reading. One way or another, Shantaram grips you by the hand and says, let me tell you a story that matters.