Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts {Reviewed bu Levi Catton}

In this novel the author has drawn extensively on his own actual experiences as a criminal in exile. After being divorced, Roberts’ life collapsed into drug abuse and he was convicted of a series of armed robberies. After being tortured in prison, he escaped over the wall and fled through New Zealand to India on a false passport. After spending eight years as a renegade in Western Asia and Europe, he was re-captured in Germany and eventually served out the remainder of his sentence in Australia. This novel is a semi-autobiographical account of time he spent in India.
 In writing about this book it is impossible to separate the story from the author. Although the story is evidently well-crafted, it’s impossible to guess how much is fact, how much embellished, and how much complete fiction; I constantly wondered about this. His language is conversational and natural, and carries the conviction of having lived the events: I found it required me to allow a generous dose of poetic license and go along with the story as it is told.
 I love stories and appreciated the well-woven and layered tale that emerges. The narrative is entertaining, surprising and gripping, and maintains a quick pace while developing lush textures. Alongside the narrative is the journaler’s moral observation and introspection. In this novel, Roberts has a strongly philosophical intent and sets forth his own and other’s motives and meanings for a range of challenging ideas and behaviors. At times the themes are heavy and difficult, but rewarding. Roberts looks for – and finds – humanity in the individual irrespective of who or what they may be. He reveals and considers the good and bad in people with depth, compassion and humour, and identifies great triumphs in both trivial and terrible choices. Roberts doesn’t try to justify his frequently nefarious and criminal activities, but presents an honest exposition of the effects of people’s choices in their own and other’s lives. In addressing the battle of morality with intelligence and practicality, this book is a daring victory.
Roberts’ greatest achievement is his power to draw the reader into the scene – and there are many rich scenes in this book. His declarations of love for Bombay are supported and made authentic by a compelling descriptive talent. The devotion he pays in portraying his city makes clear that Roberts really does love Bombay. With the non-judgmental eye of the lover, Roberts portrays the vibrancy, friendliness, corruption, honor, crime, racial tension, kindness, greed and poverty of Bombay with openness and affection. His descriptions of the people and their environment focus on the evocation of feelings, and just as the feeling of a place remains with the traveler long after they have returned home, these feelings of Bombay are what have stayed with me from this book.
 Among the very best Australian novels I have read; for the experience and education it is easily worth the shelf price.
Rating: 5 Stars

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