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.