"It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured."
Thus begins one of the most extraordinary novels I have ever read, probably one of the most extraordinary novels of the 21st century. And it is, in this first sentence that you realize how extraordinary. Witness the contrast of what the author is saying: he contrasts love with being imprisoned and chained to a wall and being tortured. Is there something that could be more opposite to love than torture?
And with this opening phrase this book grabs you. By the time you finish the first chapter you have entered into another world, a world best experienced with all of the senses, a world you can immerse yourself in for an unforgettable 940 pages. Do not let the length of this novel overwhelm you. It can seem daunting, and it can seem like a meandering river at times, but it is not. Let me first begin, by providing you with a couple of links, one to the author's website, and a link to a wonderful interview he did:
Gregory David Roberts Interview
They are not required reading, but upon getting this book, and getting ready to read it, I think you ought to become familiar with Mr. Gregory David Roberts himself. This background will explain the character of Lin or "Shantaram", the "Man of Peace", (also known as Linbaba or Lindsey) who comes to Bombay to "hide" in plain sight, after his escape from prison. There are many parallels between the real life of Mr. Roberts, the author and the characters and events in the book. Having some idea of where the author is coming from, and what he experienced in real life, helps to put into context some of the things that appear in the book.
Now, I am not suggesting that Gregory David Roberts SHOULD HAVE wrote a memoir. Far from it. This book works much better as a piece of literary fiction. There are groups out there on the Internet discussing the novel, and there appears to be a lot of confusion on this point. For me, the words of the author are absolute. This is a work of fiction, and the characters and events in the book have been inspired by real-life events. This, does not diminish them in any way and in fact, in presenting them in this form gives them greater STRENGTH and GREATER potential.
In reviewing this book, I will focus on two particular chapters only after a short overview -- which is readily available to anyone:
Shantaram is the story of Lindsey, an escaped convict from Australia traveling on a faked New Zealand passport who ends-up in Bombay, India. Here, he will come to be known as Lin, and then Linbaba and eventually become the title character, "Shantaram". The book is his story in hiding while in the sprawling city of Bombay, the people he meets there, the effect of the city on him, his effect on the city, his love for the city and his love for the people. Also, his love for Karla and his adventures while trying to survive among the Mumbai sprawl. It is a story of hope, courage, love, betrayal, friendship, faith, and ultimately redemption.
I know, that is but four sentences trying to summarize 940 pages, but it is hard to summarize a poem of such eloquent prose in any amount of words. You might ask me how I can heap such excellent praise on this book, but I must. This book, if you follow your heart, will take you on a journey that you will never forget. Most writers do an amazing and difficult job constructing imaginary worlds and then populate them with realistic characters who come alive through those pages. In the case of Mr. Roberts, the real Bombay, does not need to be constructed, but rather it needs to be drawn for us with the pen like one of those sketches a street artist completes for you and you see it come to life little by little.
The prose runs of the page like an epic poem. Granted it is one that runs 940 pages in length, but it is entertaining the whole way through. The hero in this journey discovers some truths about himself and about love and about the world, just as that first sentence suggests. Chapter 23 in particular spoke to my spiritual heart, it spoke directly to my soul, but it also spoke to my reason. This chapter discusses the author's resolution theory in some detail, his blueprint if you will, behind his belief system. Is there "good" or "evil" in the world? Or are the actions that we perform "good" or "evil"? Are we defined by those actions? Meaning, if we perform "evil" actions for a living (like a gangster or 'goonda' in Roberts' book), does that condemn us to some sort of metaphorical, or hypothetical or existential hell? It is not often that a book speaks to you with such passion and tries to teach you as well. You might not agree with Mr. Roberts' Theology, or Cosmology, or whatever you want to call it, but whatever you think of it, you WILL think about it. The impact of this chapter is that much greater first because of the events preceding it and the chapter following it. Because the love flowing out of the next chapter is so intense, so passionate, that not even the hottest romance novelist can compete.
And then there was Chapter 30. Please, skip this paragraph, if you do not want to be spoiled. It will be in different color. When the text color changes back, you know, you can continue reading the review. The night, I read chapter 30, I stayed awake and cried. I cried for Linbaba and I cried for Prabu and I cried for Abdullah and I cried for all those people who do not understand what REAL love means in the world and what REAL love can drive a person to do. Roberts' does a magnificent job of describing the feelings a man has for those lost. For the little "trained mouse" that the other inmate nailed on the cell wall who was Prabu. For the friend who was like a brother, who was Abdullah. For the world that was unkind in so many ways, so many times. I cried for Linbaba for the choices he made, as I asked myself: Would I have made those same choices? Regardless of the answer, I appreciate literature that allows me to ask that question.
The beauty of a great book like this sometimes is that you don't want it to end. Despite the length and because of the beauty of the characters and the beauty of the Bombay (Mumbai) that Roberts' describes, you want the story to continue. You want to know what happens next. You want to know about everything! This is certainly the kind of book that will stay with you forever. Supposedly, they will make a movie out of it. I don't know how they can do justice to the material. I do know that the written story is beautiful. I do know that I highly recommend this book, and I plan to give it as a gift to a few people I know.
It is definitely a four star book. In the past, when I reviewed books in my handwritten journal, books that impressed me this much, I gave them one big HUGE STAR. That meant, they were worth more than four stars. Does that mean five stars?