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Shantaram by Gregory David Robers (novel review and recommendation)

Before I get into this review, I'm just going to say that I don't regret reading this one. There were a lot of things about Shantaram that I didn't like, but I'm still glad I gave it a shot. Despite its shortcomings, I think this novel deserves to be read.  

Truth be told, I didn't want to like this novel. What I read about it (on the covers) put me off, the fact that it was written by an ex-criminal and all, but when I read the first paragraph, I was hooked. That first paragraph speaking about forgiveness had such a wise ring to it that I was sure there had to be some wisdom in this book. I was right. There is some wisdom in this book. Not as much as I would like, but enough to make the reading worthwhile. There is also a fair share of annoying pseudo-wisdom in it. Some parts of this novel are rather pretentious in their claims, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. There were times when I had to make myself read forward, when the story seemed to not only drag but also to lose its merit, when I felt I was reading the same thing over and over again. I did struggle a bit while reading this novel, it felt episodic and at times pretty repetitive, yet I’m really glad I decided to read it, for more reasons than one. I guess that one of the most important reasons is the lesson about forgiveness it teaches. For the difference between forgiving and not forgiving is sometimes the difference between truly living and just surviving.

That first plea for forgiveness is followed my many more. While I have to agree with everyone saying that there is plenty of pseudo-wisdom, pseudo- intellectualism and pseudo-philosophy in this novel, I still feel there is a ring of truth in it. Perhaps that is the reason why I liked it so much. Because there was so much search for forgiveness and meaning in it. A futile search at times when author loses himself in pseudo- philosophy, lengthy discussions and episodes without any really depth- but somehow (perhaps because I could see the effort behind them) meaningful nevertheless. Forgiveness is important. The mere act of searching for forgiveness is important. It might sounds cheesy, but I do believe in that.

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THE LITTLE THINGS

With this novel it was often the little things that annoyed me. In general, I felt there wasn't attention to details. For example, our protagonist complains about missing his family but he never does anything to contact them. Alright, he was in the hiding, but why was he willing to risk his life for mafia but not to let his family know he was alive? Sounds terribly selfish to me!

Moreover, at one moment he says how money means nothing to him and how money never means anything if you hadn't have to work hard for it. I just wonder how it never occurred to him to sent it to the mother of his child. He had a kid he supposedly missed, but for some reason alimony was out of option. What reason? Um, I think it's called being a self-centered idiot! If you find that annoying too, don't worry, I won't let the writer/the protagonist off the hook. What I'm going to do is to get into more details when it comes to ways that the protagonist rubbed me the wrong way.

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THE PROTAGONIST

The protagonist really annoyed me at times. He also happens to be the narrator of this book, and what an irritating narrator he can be. Not that there weren’t times when my heard didn’t go out to him. Times when I wept in my heart for him. Times when I was truly touched by his words. Times when I felt we had a lot in common. Times when I wondered how much we all (human beings in general) have in common. Yes, he annoyed me with his often selfish acts but he also make me wander. Wander about who he is. Or is it better to say that the protagonist made me wonder who the author was? What kind of man was he really? He clearly put so much of himself in this character. It is hard to see where fiction ends and where fact begins. In that sense, the novel feels a bit messy at times. It attempts to be a semi-autobiography and an action novel at the same time- and is there really a way of it working out well? The protagonist is not without charm, he seems to be very honest in his pursuit of friendship and at times it is quite easy to feel for him. So, the protagonist/narrator is not to blame for the messiness of the novel, but somehow it seems to fall on his shoulders because he is the one who narrates it….and because there is another thing that this novel attempts to do and that is answer the ultimate question- What is the meaning of life? It is the light motif in every chapter and there is something artificial in the way the narrator is always bringing it up.


THE BROMANCE

I actually failed to see what the romance of this book should be but I spotted plenty of bromance. Despite the fact that narrator talks about his love for one woman for most of this book, I found it hard to believe that he has loved her at all. Hard to believe that he has ever loved any woman really. He seems to be one of those man whose capacity for love ends at the start of anything that could be called romantic. He can only truly love man. Man he considers his brothers. Not that there is something wrong with that. I actually liked the emphasis on friendship, something that is so often missing in novels and while it is not perfectly handled in this novel, it is certainly not a neglected topic. This novel talks about friendship a lot and that is one of the things I love about it. Friendship is the force that can bring a man from hell. True friendship can give incredible meaning to our life. BUT…seeing that there is so much bromance and no romance in this novel, you can see why it made all the romantic parts of this novel seems artificial and forced. At times writing is horribly repetitive. Karla and the green of her eyes. We read about them a dozen of times. Every time he sees the woman, he searches for 1000 metaphors to describe her and we must join in the search and pretend we’re interested in exact shade of her green eyes and quite frankly it is boring. It is not only the case the Karla. Every guy our protagonist really likes gets several descriptions of how handsome, wise and beautiful his gaze is. The bromance part had a great start, but it was overdone and the romance part was terrible. Not the best part of this novel, but as I said I liked the emphasis on friendship. I didn’t like how it was used to glue all the shady parts of the narrative, but well this is one one of those novels where you can have it all.

THE CHARACTERS

I already mentioned a few characters, the protagonist, his love interest and his friends (the ones that he considered his family, his brothers). There are many more characters in this novel and if I were to describe them all, this review would never end. So, the best I can do is tell they are a mixed lot. Some of them seem very well developed and realistic, some of them are brought to life sure enough, but others are so poorly developed they turn into mere caricatures. Some of the characters felt (a bit too much) like characters from Bollywood films. Not a good thing in a novel that is attempting to be taken as seriously as this one.


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INDIA

In many ways, India is a character in this novel. Bombay is a character too. A living character. There is something infectious in the protagonist’s love towards India. It is not a perfect love. He can be patronizing in it- and very self-indulgent but somehow if feels genuine enough. Actually, a few times I thought to myself that’s what saves the novel. When the protagonist talks about his life in the slum and how he misses it, it sounds true enough. At that point I could feel his love for the people he lived in the slum with…but at the same time that doesn’t make the story seem very credible…if he liked the slum so much, why did he leave it? Why he was so eager to join the mafia?

THE STORY

Honestly, I loved the beginning of the book. I already said that the first paragraphed had me hooked, and not surprisingly the narrative that followed really kept my interest...for a while. At the start of the book, I felt like we were there with him, as he was rebuilding his life the best way he could, falling in love with Bombay and the first beautiful woman he had seen. Nevertheless, somewhere around the middle, I started to dislike the book. The story itself started to lose sense. The romance in it wasn’t believable and the bromance started to lose its meaning. The whole talk of friendship didn’t justify the actions of the protagonist to me. He talked so much about redemption, but what do his actions say about him? Why should one good deed delete countless bad ones? Why should we care so much for happens to the guy that is so determined to live as a criminal? So, he respected the mafia lord. So, he wanted his approval. So, he saw him as a father that he never had. There is so much talk about the protagonist’s love for this mafia lord, but if I may be honest I think it was no love at all. Love is the most overused word in the world. At the bottom of things, I see a story about the man who didn’t mind being a criminal. Spin as much poetry into it as you would like but I see a man addicted to danger. Addicted to crime. Addicted to the sense of purpose crime gave him and the sense of honour belonging to mafia gave him. Why I don’t dislike this story more, I’m not sure. He didn’t sell all that mafia honour crap to me, that’s for sure. It is more that somehow the novel works despite its flaws. Perhaps because there are moments in which you get the feeling that the protagonist knows he is bullshitting you (and himself) into thinking that there is more to mafia and heroin then meets the eye. There isn't. Sure, the world isn't black and white. But when you become a criminal, you cross the line. In his hearts of hearts, I'm sure the writer knows that. He just doesn't have what it needs to fully confront it. Hence the idolization of mafia.

THE MAFIA

Much of the plot in this novel revolves around Bombay mafia. Almost everyone appearing in this novel is connected to mafia, one way or another. Some of the mafia's actions are more direct than others, but most of the writing about it is descriptive. Long, long passages about how mafia participates in daily affairs of the country. Mafia is this potent force that everyone respects. Now that I think of it, a part of this novel felt copied from Godfather series. I strongly disliked the idealization of mafia. I felt like there was way too much self- justification in it for my taste. It didn’t make the story better either. I just didn’t enjoy reading about it. I couldn’t understand the protagonist’s fascination for the mafia lord. All his talk about morals, God, philosophy started falling through. The reasons why I didn’t want to read this book in the first place? The heroin and the mafia. It is only those moments of brutal honesty that are the saving grace of this novel and unfortunately there aren’t that many of them. The while action part of the novel clashes awkwardly with what was supposed to be the wisdom of it. The way he tried to join honour and mafia together felt really artificial and forced. I have to repeat myself and say just how much I hate the way he portrayed the mafia in such a romantic and formidable light. The same goes for heroin.


THE HEROIN

Heroin addicts get on my nerves. The way they make it seem like they achieved something great by getting off heroin. Like it is some heroic act. It’s not. Heroic act is not to take heroin in the first place. Heroic is comforting life on its own. Heroic is working for a minimal wage. Heroic is NOT getting involved into criminal activities. I think the author realized it at some point himself, but there are many moments in this novel that try to justify either his connection with mafia or heroin. There are times when he doesn’t indulge himself into thinking he is a messiah, times when he seems to be completely open about what his addiction to heroine was. Needless to say, I liked those moments much more than I did those justifying the mafia and the heroin. If there was more honesty about that, it could have been a much better novel but I suppose that the author couldn’t resist making it more attractive to general public- who for some reason seems to dig all that survivor from heroin shit. I don’t and I never will.

PERHAPS THE HEROIN GOT INTO THE WAY OF THE HEROINE?

Just saying...is there a heroine in this book? I'm not sure. There is a love interest of the protagonist, but I'm not happy with the way she was portrayed. Maybe romance and drug habits don't mix well?


THE LENGTH OF THE BOOK

I have to say it- some parts of this novel are rather bad. Self-indulgent, repetitive, pompous. The novel could benefit from being shorter- I generally hate to talk about the length of books because it seems kind of vulgar but in this case I have to mention it. So, this is what I think comes down to this: Shantaram is not a masterpiece like War and Peace, and there really is no need for it to be this long. Most of the descriptions in this novel weren’t there for a good reason. Furthermore, most of the descriptions (especially description of character’s appearance) were repetitive.

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THE CONCLUSION


Having read it, I’ve developed somewhat of a love and hate relationship with this novel. The only other novel I ever felt so conflicted about was On The Road. No wonder that this review is so long. What bothers me about this novel is perhaps that it is such an odd mixture of brilliant, average, below average and incredibly touching writing. Shantaram is at times truly amazing, but at times it is anything but if you know what I mean. Sometimes the writing was so sloppy that I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Albeit I have to admit that I do believe that this writer has considerable (if unpolished) writing talent. Perhaps the novel was just too ambitious, trying to be a mixture of too many things? Nevertheless, there is strength in this book. It is the desperate kind of strength, but it is there. What I like about it so much is the author’s determination to get his message across. The message isn’t perfect and its delivery is probably not as wise as he think it is, but there is something very genuine about it- or perhaps about his desire to share it. His characters aren’t perfect and the story isn’t that fantastic either. It is a good but flawed story. At times the narrative is anything but believable, but there is something holding it together. I don’t know what it is. It is not the constantly brilliant writing because that just didn’t happen. It is not the perfectly developed characters either, because the characters are a mixed lot. It is not a bullet proof story, because there were inconsistencies in the story. Yet, somehow it makes sense. Somehow the ending feels right despite some logic that suggests that it is not much of an ending. Perhaps it is one of those books that are great despite being flawed. You know, like the paintings that are touching and important despite the fact that the painter made some mistakes, judged the proportions wrongly or messed up some parts because he was tired. It might just be one of the best bad books I've read.


P.S. If this review wasn't long enough for your liking, there is a YouTube review as well.







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