Yeti Reads: The Paradox of Shantaram

Shantaram is a uniquely frustrating book. Told by a criminal who escapes high security prison in Australia and flees to Mumbai in the late 70s, it’s an extremely exciting book. Everything from floods to murders to war takes place in this fictionalized biography. At one point the protagonist gets robbed and he just moves into a slum and becomes a doctor. Amazing stuff.

The majesty of the story is matched only by the ineptitude of the prose. At one point, during a scene when the narrator is looking at a river, he writes” ‘I was thinking of another river. A river that runs through all of us. The river of the heart.”

He describes the eyes of the woman he loves over a dozen times. His love of her leads to horrible passages, like:

“My eyes were lost, swimming, floating free in the shimmering lagoon of her steady, even stare.”

“Her young face,…, looked as if it had been carved in volcanic stone by the rush of a river”

“Her eyes were the colour of amber, set in rose gold, … and the high curves of her cheekbones were the mountains from which her amber eyes studied the world.”

And in their sex scene he actually writes: “I was her chariot, and she rode me into the sun.”

Other crimes against writing include interruption of scenes with burdensome descriptions of minor characters, and makes all kinds of very strange pronouncements. He says things like:

“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 humour, and it turns up where you least expect it.”

“Fate gives all of us three teachers, three friends, three enemies, and three great loves in our lives. But these twelve are always disguised, and we can never know which one is which until we’ve loved them, left them, or fought them.”

Strange statements aren’t the end of the story here. His descriptions are so laughable that it’s laugh out loud funny. Think of The Room as a book and you’ll have some idea.

“Some loves are like that. Most loves are like that. your heart starts to feel like an overcrowded lifeboat. you throw your pride out to keep it afloat, and your self-respect and your independence. after a while you start throwing people out – your friends, everyone you used to know. and it’s still not enough. the lifeboat is still sinking, and you know it’s going to take you down with it.”

“My culture had taught me all the wrong things well. so i lay completely still, and gave no reaction at all. but the soul has no culture. the soul has no nations. the soul has no color or accent or way of life. the soul is forever. the soul is one. and when the heart has its moment of truth and sorrow, the soul can’t be stilled. i clenched my teeth against the stars. i closed my eyes. i surrendered to sleep. one of the reasons why we crave love, and seek it so desperately, is that love is the only cure for loneliness, and shame, and sorrow. but some feelings sink so deep into the heart that only loneliness can help you find them again. some truths about yourself are so painful that only shame can help you live with them. and some things are just so sad that only your soul can do the crying for you.” ugh. how relentlessly and intolerably true.”

I know now that it’s the sweet, sweating smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate; and it’s a sour, stifled smell of greed, which is the opposite of love.”

These aren’t cherry-picked quotes. The entire book is this purple. His writing is worthy of more scorn than it can ever receive. But it is an amazing tale, and one that we recommend–as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into.

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