By Gregory David Roberts
St. Martin's. 933 pp. $24.95
The Australian father turned heroin addict turned escaped convict who narrates this sprawling, intelligent novel gets several new names from the people he meets in India, where he goes to hide from the law. One of them is Shantaram, which means "man of peace" or "man of God's peace." The irony does not escape Lin, a man of many secrets who is willing to kill to protect those secrets. Yet he finds hope in his christening as well. "I don't know if they found that name in the heart of the man they believed me to be, or if they planted it there, like a wishing tree, to bloom and grow," Lin says. "Whatever the case, . . . the truth is that the man I am was born in those moments."
Shantaram, a blatantly autobiographical first novel by Gregory David Roberts, an Australian author who himself fled to India after escaping from prison, sets out to tell the story of Lin's transformation from desperate, bitter man on the run to, if not a man of peace, then a man of understanding, a man at peace with his life and the mistakes he has made.
The book, told in 933 readable pages, follows him from a remote Indian village in monsoon season to the Afghan mountains in winter, but mostly it takes place in Bombay: in a slum where he founds a medical clinic, in a prison where he is beaten and tortured, in meetings of a branch of the India mafia led by Abdel Khader Khan, an Afghan who becomes a father figure and employer for the fugitive.
The book is full of vibrant characters: Prabaker, the Indian with the winning smile who is Lin's first guide to the city; Karla, a Swiss woman also fleeing a troubled past, with whom Lin becomes infatuated. But Bombay itself is Shantaram's strongest personality. Lin's love of the mafia don and the green-eyed Karla feels suspect to me, but his -- and Roberts's -- love of India and the people who live there is unmistakable and a joy to read about.
Roberts's writing is never understated. He sounds sometimes like Raymond Chandler, with that noir mix of toughness, sentiment and bravado. This style threatens to tip over into the overwrought, and sometimes it does. The sections about Karla and romantic love are the weakest in the book. He describes a kiss in this way: "Our lips met like waves that crest and merge the whirl of storming seas." Are you sure?
But the exuberance of his prose is refreshing in this age of finely crafted fiction, and the insight he shows into men's weaker and stronger traits can be moving. The novel's prison sections are riveting and convincing; when Roberts writes about what it feels like to be knifed, I believe him. And then Prabaker shows up before his wedding night, worried that as a "short and small" man, he won't be a good lover. Lin tells him "that love makes men big, and hate makes them small. I told him that my little friend was one of the biggest men I ever met because there wasn't any hate in him. I said that the better I knew him, the bigger he got." I don't mind a dose of sentimentality if the sentiment it reflects feels true.
The novel loses its drive when Lin leaves India to fight in "Khader's war," as the Afghan attempts to deliver weapons and other aid to the insurgency against the Soviets in the late 1980s. Here, Roberts ties up the various strands of this story, revealing the invisible net that has connected all of Lin's experiences, from the slum to Karla to his work for Khader. But his tying-up seems more important to the plot than it does to the novel, and the book lags in these pages.
Lin's transformation, which gives the novel its name, is problematic as well. Toward the end, he offers a well-paying job in Khader's illegal enterprise to two friends from the slum. "I'd never anticipated the saddened and offended expressions that closed their smiles," Roberts writes. "Was I so far out of touch with the thoughts and feelings of decent men?" Yes, but he doesn't seem to catch on. It's hard to believe the character who displays so much wisdom is still working for the mafia at the end, going off to fight another part of Khader's war, after an alleged realization that the violent struggle for power is always wrong.
Despite this failing, Shantaram displays an intelligence about human nature and a warmth for the human race that continue to be alluring long after the plot loses steam. Early on Lin talks about a peculiar Indian custom that he calls "amiable abduction." "For months, in the slum, I'd succumbed to the vague and mysterious invitations of friends to accompany them to unspecified places, for unknown purposes. You come, people said with smiling urgency, never feeling the need to tell me where we were going, or why. You come now!" Shantaram itself is an amiable abduction. Roberts brings us through Bombay's slums and opium houses, its prostitution dens and ex-pat bars, saying, You come now. And we follow.
Carole Burns, who hosts "Off the Page," an online discussion with fiction writers on washingtonpost. com, is at work on a novel.