The Mountain Shadow – Shantaram’s disappointing sequel

I really enjoyed Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts’ first novel. I read it over a hot summer, in long bursts in the car in between stops  touring the Balkans with my family. I read aloud funny excerpts to my little brother on the evenings when it was too hot to do anything but hold a book.

Shantaram and The Mountain Shadow are, mostly, based in Bombay. Shantaram is the story of Lin, an Australian convict, who escapes to India. He finds a home in the slums of Bombay, and ends up carving out a career working for a mafia boss. Along the way he befriends, and ‘be-enemies’, a host of interesting characters.  The Mountain Shadow picks up a couple of years from where Shantaram left of, and we find Lin uneasy in a changing Bombay, looking to escape his life in the mafia.

Now, Shantaram isn’t the most well written book in the world. It’s full of laboured metaphors, for example.  But it is good and its content is absorbing. The book is enormous and rightly so, as Roberts has a lot of stories to tell, from escaping from an Australian prison, working for Bombay’s biggest mafia boss to fighting a war in Afghanistan. How much of this actually happened to Roberts, and how much is artistic licence is difficult to tell. Roberts has said that the book was inspired by his real life on the run, but that most of the detail is made up. Shantaram is peopled with fascinating characters that are really well illustrated, from the witty and beautiful Karla, to the outgoing Didier and hilarious Prabaker. Shantaram  especially comes alive in the streets of Bombay, the huts of the slums and the crowds in Leopold’s Bar. I was a fan of this debut and so were a lot of other readers.

Then came The Mountain Shadow. It’s odd but I actually don’t remember hearing about this sequel coming until I saw it one day, there in it’s gorgeous, black hardback cover at my local Waterstones. I thought that I would rip through it but  it was slow work.

The first problem? The characters weren’t alive anymore. Roberts had taken these vivid people and turned them into 2d caricatures of their former selves. Whereas Karla was once mysterious and enviably smart, she is now incredibly irritating. The book is littered with her one liners. Lin can’t get a straight answer out of her for the entire novel. There’s even a whole segment where an entire dialogue is just Lin and Karla firing ‘deep’ quotes  at each other.  The other characters too are simply exaggerations of their previous selves, more extreme, less believable than before.

That takes us to Lin’s own philosophical musings. Here’s an example:

“Love the truth that you find in the hearts of others. Always listen to the voice of love in your own heart” 

Granted , Lin did help the slum build a makeshift hospital, and he’s always loyal to those he cares for but for a guy who has actually done a lot of bad things in his life, I couldn’t help but feel a bit annoyed that he is constantly preaching at the reader. Lin’s conversations  with a guru on the mountain and the guru’s speeches fill endless pages of really quite low grade philosophy, made up of purposely trite and ornate language that excludes and isolates the reader.

“I don’t like letters. Any dark past is a vampire, feeding on the blood of the living moment, and letters are the bats.” 

Perhaps Roberts wanted to hit as many quotable lines as possible, but reading something like the above every other paragraph, (how dramatic can you be about a letter?) is too much and eventually, too boring.

I wonder, has Roberts swallowed his own hype? After Shantaram’s success, this novel feels like a rushed attempt to create another epic and has dismally failed. The plot, like its predecessor, is full of events and drama, but this time failed to keep me hooked and frankly, I didn’t really care what happened.  Maybe this is a sequel that really didn’t need writing.

The Great American Novelist – Jonathan Franzen and his latest novel, Purity

I discovered Franzen when I read Freedom at University. I have been hooked ever since.

Franzen is fantastic. There are many who will disagree with me, many who think he’s a bore and others who think he’s downright offensive. The reason I love his novels is because, through his writing and his characters, Franzen lays down 21st Century America on an operating table and then rips it apart.

There’s some cynicism to his writing, something about how he takes a character who, on paper, looks to be a ‘good’ person, chasing the American dream,  and he shows them up for what they are. There aren’t any heroes in his novels, I don’t think, but rather wayward characters who on the face of it are very much middle America, yet there is a darkness inside them all. Franzen shines a light on that, he sees through all their vacuous vanity and pretention and without moving more than the few muscles it takes to type a paragraph, exposes them with a funny riposte.

You might think that’s a negative way of writing, but actually it’s refreshingly honest. In his way, his books are positive, because what happens after he strips back the facades and the fakery is usually a happy ending; his characters are flawed, terrible people who make lots of mistakes but if they’re honest enough about it, they can try their best to live well. Nothing and no one is immune to Franzen’s pen. Not hipsters, not capitalists, not dot com geniuses, truth seeking hackers or smarmy journalists.

Franzen’s most recent novel is Purity and one  I enjoyed perhaps because of the heavy parallels to Dickens’ Great Expectations. Here, Purity Tyler, self-nicknamed Pip, copes with the weight of the great expectations on her shoulders. She’s  the daughter of a neurotic woman, a modern day Miss Havisham, and finds herself a recipient of some unexpected attention from Andreas Wolf, the Julian Assange of Purity’s world. Pip lands in Bolivia, working as a researcher for The Sunlight Project but global justice is far from her mind as the only thing she’s looking for is her father who she hopes might solve her college debt woes. This storyline is typical of Franzen – he captures the American times very well and exposes the darkness within. Wolf, revered around the world as  a hero, is actually a bit of a sleazebag, and Pip, in debt and young, bouncing from career mistake to relationship mistake, like a human ping pong ball, is actually full of just the right amount of cynicism and disillusion to make a good go of today’s world.

Although not as good as The Corrections, which to me will stand the test of time as epitomising turn-of-the-21st-century American family life, Purity is wonderful and full of enough humour and sadness to make the 563 page wrist sprainer worth it. Plus the cover is really cool and shiny.

Comparing Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day to Never Let Me Go

I recently read two of Ishiguro’s best known books, in quick succession. Never Let me Go, a tale of a dystopian 1950s, where certain children are bred simply to donate their healthy organs and then die is a life affirming, optimistic tale, of the pursuit of love, hope and life. The Remains of the Day, a story of an aged butler, taking a charming holiday driving through beautiful English countryside to visit an old friend, is a dismal, bleak look at wasted life and opportunity.

Confused? Let me explain.

Ishiguro himself stated in an interview that Never Let Me Go is his most cheerful book (Source http://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/feb/20/fiction.kazuoishiguro). I can easily see why. Although the fate of the children in Never Let Me Go is sad, and raises interesting questions of morality, humanity, and to what extent our ever advancing capabilities in medicine and science means that we’re playing the role of ‘god’, I never actually found the story of the donors to be the main draw. Sure, Ishiguro lures you in to the story at the start, raising your curiosity with his slow, drip feeding of information. I imagine it is much the same way that the children learn of it as they grow older, and accept their fate, because they simply know of no other.  It’s a great technique.

However, for me, this was much more of a coming of age story. The children learn to navigate the complex world of friendship and popularity, they discover sex and relationships, and finally they learn about love. Most importantly, two of the characters finally admit their attraction, and share some precious time together at the end. They even try to desperately find a way to be allowed a few more years together, by collating art work to prove their humanity. Despite their fates, they always had hope . Their lives were short, but they loved and were loved, even for a little while.

Now on the other hand, we have The Remains of the Day. Here, our poor Butler, gifted with a long and seemingly healthy life, leaves love far too late. He lets Miss Kenton, the woman of his dreams, go in his younger years, never admitting his feelings, and remains married to a job that eventually breaks his heart in more ways than one.  Here Ishiguro’s writing really comes into its own.

A master of smoke and mirrors, we initially see the idyllic Darlington Hall as a charming portrait of upper class English life. The butler is a man renowned for his talents and a man seemingly content in carrying out his duties. Yet Ishiguro serves up small, surprising snippets of information that hints at a dark side. For example, we find out that the Butler’s master was actually a Nazi sympathiser and that he wasn’t always on the right side of history. Yet our Butler makes excuses and tries to explain away his master’s errors of judgement. In a parallel narrative, our Butler also explains away his moments of tension with Miss Kenton, never actually admitting his true feelings, forever in denial.  And so is the reader perhaps, until the final few chapters where we really acknowledge, as does our flawed hero, that his duties were wasted twofold. Yes, he served the house and allowed it to play its part in history, but it played the wrong part and all his efforts to serve his homeland by serving his Master were to waste, as well as losing out on the life he might have had with Miss Kenton. After a lifetime, and a novel, of denial, it is with heavy heart that both Butler and reader drive away into the English countryside.