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Shantaram

“Sometimes you break your heart in the right way…”

Remember that book I told you about four hundred years ago?  Well I finally finished it.  And that quote is really the best way to describe how I feel about it.

Shantaram is a novel, but it is also eerily close to the life experiences of the author, Gregory David Roberts.  Both men are from Australia.  Both men were sentenced to nineteen years in prison for armed robbery.  Both men escaped and spent ten fugitive years in Bombay.

The narrator’s love of India and her people is infectious.  He describes the sweltering heat with the simple, defiant sentence, “Each breath was an angry little victory.”  The pages are filled with visits to mosques, opium dens, slums, and magical corners of Bombay that could only be found with the help of a trusted local guide and friend.  I feel like I’ve been to India now, even if we skipped a few of the sights I had highlighted in my Fodor’s guide.

And this line?  I love everything about this line:

None of us lie or guard our secrets when we sing, and India is a nation of singers whose first love is the kind of song we turn to when crying just isn’t enough.

But truth be told, I’m not sure I like the narrator.  He’s a criminal.  A drug addict.  A philanderer.  “I was tough, which is probably the saddest thing you can say about a man.”  But he’s also a writer.  And a lover.  And a philosopher.  Somehow, 933 pages later, I’m sill not sure how to define him, nor how I feel about him.  And I can’t say for certain if those dichotomies made the book more or less impactful.

The whole book was filled with that push and pull, love and hate, desire and boredom.  One moment, I was moved by the great beauty of his writing and the sweet sentiments it expressed.  Then the next moment I was horrified and squirming in my seat.  Roberts drags the reader along on a roller coaster ride of emotions, from smiling to slack-jawed in seconds.  Like this passage for example:

In that other world-within-a-world, back then, I moved into a new prison cell and discovered a tiny mouse there.  The creature entered through a cracked air vent, and crept into the cell every night.  Patience and obsessional focus are the gems we mine in the tunnels of prison solitude.  Using them, and tiny morsels of food, I bribed the little mouse, over several weeks, and eventually trained it to eat from the edge of my hand.  When the prison guards moved me from that cell, in a routine rotation, I told the new tenant – a prisoner I thought I knew well – about the trained mouse.  On the morning after the move, he invited me to see the mouse.  He’d captured the trusting creature, and crucified it, face down, on a cross made from a broken ruler.  He laughed as he told me how the mouse had struggled when he’d tied it by its neck to the cross with cotton thread.  He marveled at how long it had taken to drive thumbtacks into its wriggling paws.

Honestly, had that scene happened any earlier in the book, I might have put it down right then and there.  It still gives me the willies.

But the book is filled with other characters to temper the narrator’s questionable personality.  Too many characters, in fact.  I don’t need to be introduced to every single person the narrator meets in every single cafe he steps into over the course of a decade.  I just don’t.  And after I meet the seventeenth person who’s name starts with a Kh, I start to glaze over.

But some of those other characters have great lines and insights.  Like:

You’re a good listener.  That’s dangerous, because it’s so hard to resist.  Being listened to – really listened to – is the second-best thing in the world.

Or even:

Optimism is the first cousin of love, and it’s exactly like love in three ways: it’s pushy, it has no real sense of humor, and it turns up where you least expect it.

And while the book meanders and could certainly be much shorter, I keep finding myself revisiting its pages, mulling over quotes and my strong reactions to many of the characters, which I still can’t explain.

It’s said that you can never go home again, and it’s true enough, of course.  But the opposite is also true.  You must go back and you always go back, and you can never stop going back, no matter how hard you try.

So I loved AND hated the book.  It’s beautiful.  And it’s grotesque.  It’s everything I love about mankind, and everything I hate about it.  It’s hope and despair all at once.  And it broke my heart, but I think it was in the right way.

“I don’t know what scares me more,” she declared, “the madness that smashes people down, or their ability to endure it.”

38 comments to Shantaram

  • I believe you can dislike the narrator but you have to respect them, somehow. This book sounds long and arduous and conflicting. Ill check it out soon. Thank you.

    [Reply]

    All those things. It’s a commitment, for sure.

    [Reply]

  • I think I might skip this one, not because of your review, just because that’s a long as freaking book. And if I’m going to devote that much time to a book, it better be scaring the pants off me.

    I also think you can dislike the narrator and love the book. I feel that way about a couple of Elizabeth Berg’s books. They’re more bite size if you want to check them out.

    ♥Spot

    [Reply]

    I’ll check one out. Though really, it’s hard for me when I don’t like the narrator. I hate dedicating that much time investing in someone I don’t like.

    [Reply]

  • wow compelling snippets, elly! but the one about the tiny trained mouse really punched me in the emotional gut. gah. too true how humanity is so easy to love and cringe at, all at the same time. i really like that last quote!

    [Reply]

    I had to put the book down for a few days after that. Woof.

    [Reply]

  • I made it through war and peace… and swore to never read something that long again unless it had Wizards and Vampires in it. I also will not read books that do bad things to cute little mice. That’s just wrong!

    Congratulations on finishing! Those really are some good quotes.

    [Reply]

    There definitely was no sparkling. Unless you count the ocean. But I don’t think RPats will play the ocean in the movie version.

    [Reply]

  • That sounds like some book! That last quote is quite a kicker.

    [Reply]

    In the gut.

    [Reply]

  • I’m still reading GD Darghon Tattoo. I must finish it because I am incapable of reading a new book when I have one unfinished. When I do (maybe this summer?), I will try this one. Even if the crucified mouse is entirely too disturbing.

    [Reply]

    I can’t read more than one book at a time, either. Apparently I also can’t write more than one at a time.

    [Reply]

  • Wow. Impassioned, sensitive, honest, that review.

    I would expect nothing less.

    Also?

    I’ve read it.

    And I cried, literally for days, when I read the mouse passage.

    There’s so much symbolism and sadness wrapped into that passage, I don’t even know where to begin.

    Now, more MORE book reccos!

    I’m DYING for a new read (heh…literally) (I’m KIDDING, Elly, relax!) and it seems you’ve excellent taste.

    Lovin’ you.

    – B x

    [Reply]

    You’re killing me. Not literally. Fortunately.

    You need fun, though. Read A Girl Named Zippy. That’ll make you giggle.

    [Reply]

  • Oh…where were you when I read that book? I so needed to talk to someone about it and no one I knew would read it! Excellent review and truly spot-on.

    [Reply]

    It’s hard to read without someone to vent to! I totally agree!

    [Reply]

  • How can I resist picking up this book now. I’l tell you. I can’t!

    Must find

    [Reply]

    Well I can tell you the Hoboken Library just got their copy back if that helps.

    [Reply]

  • When I hear about books like this, I always think to myself, I’ll read that someday when I’m feeling less vulnerable; I don’t think I can take it right now.

    But that day never seems to come.

    [Reply]

    Yeah. I thought to myself, “Self? You should read something that’s a total departure from your life and just escape for a few hundred pages. A heroin addict prisoner escapee living in Bombay? That sounds like nothing you’ve experienced. Try that!” *sigh*

    [Reply]

  • I would like you to just read books FOR me. Your reviews are excellent, and I don’t always find the time. But now I can’t decide about this one. Recommend or no?

    [Reply]

    I can’t really decide either. I do recommend it. It’s full of beautiful language. But…it’s definitely not the feel good story of the year. And I don’t know that I learned anything exactly. It left me mourning. And I guess I don’t know a ton of people that I would encourage to experience that.

    [Reply]

  • J

    I can’t remember the last time I read a book that long. I am a horrible writer. I just.don’t.read. I think I need to pick that habit back up – but perhaps I’ll skip the mouse-crucifying scene seeing as how I almost cried and vomited at the same time after reading it…

    [Reply]

    Well it’s hard. I love to read. But it takes a lot of time away from writing. I try to make it through a book a month and don’t always succeed. Meanwhile I have a friend reading 50 this year. And she still churns out short story after short story. I suspect she doesn’t sleep.

    [Reply]

  • dbs

    Intense. I love the way you write about books (and really, everything).

    [Reply]

    Right back atcha. I can’t wait to review your novel.

    [Reply]

  • You certainly know how to sell a story lady! WOW!

    [Reply]

  • I’m so conflicted, do I want to read this or not? I think the mouse cruxifiction turned me off to it. Now if had been a ferret it would be a whole different story. Smarmy little bastards, they deserve what they get.

    [Reply]

    Remind me to tell you someday about how I once spent 2 days painting dried up ferret poo white.

    [Reply]

    Can I remind you NOW because I have the sick and twisteds to know this story immediately.

    [Reply]

  • Great review and great book. Very, very excellent. I think Gregory David Roberts created a narrator who is so complex it’s the closest thing I’ve read to actually human being status; meaning that the narrator encompasses, as you said, just about everything to love and hate about humanity. Most writers don’t even come close, and if they do, it’s only through utilizing several different characters in one book. He packs it into one guy.

    [Reply]

    YES. Ok now I feel much better about the book and the narrator. You nailed it. And yet, he still lacks that bit of something that makes me want to know him and spend time with him. Or maybe that’s my own mental block against someone that has done such horrible things. Maybe it makes me not like me. Maybe you should get out of my brain and stop mucking it up in there, mister. Maybe I should stop watching horror movies late at night, too.

    [Reply]

  • Kaj

    The mouse part is harsh, and I am one of those who hates to hear about the suffering of creatures. But there are humans out there who really don’t give a fig about animals, and those that are sociopaths and like to torture animals (which fits a criminal profile well). We need to be reminded of that horror now and then to stay vigilant against it.

    That scene reminded me of the movie “The Green Mile.” Lots of intense moments there. I had a little nervous breakdown and almost puked in the theater (right next to my mom, no less). Good times.

    [Reply]

  • Excellent review. If you can stand another book about India, read “A Fine Balance.” If not, read “To the End of the Land.” I need to talk to someone about this book.

    [Reply]

    I’ll search the library tomorrow. Just for you. Well and for me, obviously. Just for us. Now we’re a gum commercial.

    [Reply]

  • [...] In Shantaram a story is told, apparently on page 367 (source), of a mouse who was eating off a man’s hand in prison. When the man changed his cell, another man came in and was introduced to the mouse. He then crucified the mouse: In that other world-within-a-world, back then, I moved into a new prison cell and discovered a tiny mouse there. The creature entered through a cracked air vent, and crept into the cell every night. Patience and obsessional focus are the gems we mine in the tunnels of prison solitude. Using them, and tiny morsels of food, I bribed the little mouse, over several weeks, and eventually trained it to eat from the edge of my hand. When the prison guards moved me from that cell, in a routine rotation, I told the new tenant – a prisoner I thought I knew well – about the trained mouse. On the morning after the move, he invited me to see the mouse. He’d captured the trusting creature, and crucified it, face down, on a cross made from a broken ruler. He laughed as he told me how the mouse had struggled when he’d tied it by its neck to the cross with cotton thread. He marveled at how long it had taken to drive thumbtacks into its wriggling paws. (source of the quote). [...]

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