Wednesday, December 11, 2013

25. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts


I wanted to write a longer review, but I just need to get something down here so that I can move forward.

I have been struggling with my reading and am thus casting about for different approaches that will keep my nose in a book and not an attention-shattering tablet.  I thought one long book that I could slowly work my way through might work and two friends recommended Shantaram.  It looked glossy and digestible enough that it would also be easy consuming, like a big blockbuster action movie.  What I didn't realize is that Shantaram is not only a dreaded "trade paperback", it's also a chick book!  My good friend Lantzvillager, with whom I share many literary tastes, took great pleasure in ridiculing me for reading Shantaram.  And thus I found myself torn between friends, questioning my own identity!

I exaggerate for humour, but the truth is that throughout this book I kept going back and forth on whether it should be praised or condemned.  The narrative is great, right up my alley: heroin-addict armed robber escapes from brutal Australian prison and flees to India where with his street smarts and the craziness of the Mumbai crime world begins a life of adventure.  The problem is that all of this is of course in service to his own journey of personal discovery.  So that at the end of each chapter of entertaining craziness, there would have to be several paragraphs of reflection and bad metaphors ("and with each bullet wound, the river of pain that is life reminded me of my own pain and blah blah).  Worse, the whole thing is such an insane white man fantasy.  As a white man, I'm all for white man fantasies of going into one of the craziest most other cities in the world, learning all their languages, getting down with the super poor people in the slums and hanging with the baddest ass gangster bosses in the fancy clubs, but please don't try and frame it in all this self-actualization and awareness bullshit to try and make it more than it is.  [And one part just goes way beyond the pale.  When he is making his way up with the big Mumbai mafia bosses, he is given the responsibility for the currency exchange side of the business.  In an aside, he mentions how he has introduced computers into their business to improve their efficiency.  Please.  Australian ex-con is going to show the Indians how to use computers.  Yeah, right.]

The problem with the above criticism is that while this is not based on a true story at all (according to the other), he really did flee an Australian prison and lived in Mumbai and still lives there today.  So the guy probably is kind of a badass.  Usually when someone is full of shit, you find out about it on the internet pretty quickly, but it does seem like Gregory David Roberts has led a pretty extraordinary and courageous life.  His white man fantasy was no fantasy.

As you can see, I kept going back and forth, though I also kept turning the pages.  The last section, where he goes to Afghanistan, drags on a bit long, but overall it did deliver the kind of reading experience I had hoped for.  And got me at least halfway to my goal in 2013!

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