Monday, June 06, 2005

Must read

It's been a long time since I've last been so engrossed by a novel that I carried it with me everywhere. Shantaram , a massive 932 page novel, is such a book.

It's an incredible autobiographical novel which fictionalizes the author's own experience in Bombay in the 1980's. He was a heroin addict in Australia in the late 70's who committed a string of armed robberies and was sentenced to 20 years jail. He escaped from jail and using a forged New Zealand passport arrived in Bombay where he lived a most extraordinary life for the next ten years. He learned to speak Hindi and Marathi, lived in a village for six months, then lived in a Bombay slum and started a free clinic. He got busted by the police was tortured for three months before getting freed, hooking up with a crime lord and becoming part of the local mafia where he specialized in forged passports and documents. If all that's not enough he became a gun runner, smuggled guns into Afghanistan and took part in the war there for a shortwhile. It all sounds so over the top, and times it is, but it's such a terrific read that you forgive it all its excesses. The characters are vivid and very memorable, and the descriptions of life in Bombay make you yearn to visit it to see it through his eyes.

This is truly one of those once a decade books. The author was eventually caught in Germany in 1990 and was extradicted to Australia to complete his original sentence. He claims he had to rewrite the book three times. The first two times his manuscripts were confiscated and destroyed by his prison wardens. The book came out in 2003 in Australia and became a huge bestseller there. The publishing rights have now been sold in 54 countries and it's now being turned into a movie starring Johnny Depp.

Even more incredibly, the book only covers his story from the time he arrived in Bombay till around 1986 or 87. The author claims there will be 2 or 3 other books in the future to complete his story.

Like I said, the book has some weaknesses but it's well worth your time. It's definitely the fastest thousand pages I've read in a long long time.

update (13.06.04):

The paperback is available at Family Bookshop.


Mansur said...

If this is the fastest 1000 pages you have read, I am willing to pick it up. It's funny I did not hear about this book nor have seen it being displayed prominently atthe bookshops. I will have a look at it the next time I am at the bookshops. Thanks for recommendind it. I am currently reading The DaVinci Code (probably the last person to do so) and am half way through that book. That is one book I am finding myself go through extremely fast because each chapter almost ends in a cliffhanger!


muscati said...

Mansur, very few books become as big a hit as Da Vinci Code. But you know when I first bought Da Vinci Code in Jan 2004 it wasn't the phenomenon that it later became. OD and I both read it very quickly and started lending it to our friends and they too started telling friends about it. When the paperback came out 5 or 6 months later, that's when the book just exploded all over the place. When I got the book, it was already a huge hit in the US, but very ppl in the UK had heard about it.

Anyway, Da Vinci Code works because the author kept the writing very very simple and the chapters ridiculously short. Plus, as you said every single chapter ends with a cliff hanger. Thus, even people who don't generally like to read books find it a very easy read. Shantaram isn't like that. This one's more literary. The size is a bit off-putting, and the chapters are usually long and without breaks.

Shantaram is no where close to being such a hit. It was a huge hit in Australia, but it didn't achieve that same kind of success elsewhere. It got on the bestseller lists but never became such a phenomenon. But if you search online you'll find a tremendous amount of rave reviews and sites/blogs that recommend it and name it their book of the year. I saw this book in Glasgow last year but I didn't buy it because it was too big in hardcover. I totally forgot about it after that, and then suddenly last month I saw it in hypermarket in Dubai (I think the new Geant in Ibn Batuta Mall).

A. Woman in black said...

Thanks for the review...Insha'Allah I will pick it up next time im in Dubai. I have been looking for a good read .

she said...

'shantaram' has also been much appreciated in india, actually. though it isn't a bestseller in the conventional sense (for much the reasons that you list), it met with some critical acclaim and a lot of people really enjoyed the book. it's an unusual topic written wonderfully well.
another book that is bombay-centric and brings the city alive is 'maximum city' by suketu mehta.

muscati said...

Asya - thanks for the recommendation. I'll look for Maximum City next time I'm book shopping, but at the moment I got my hands full. The new Nick Hornby should be arriving in the mail this week and after that I'll be reading Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy, all 3000 pages of it. I'm not a fast reader so that should take me all the way till fall.

she said...

and 'maximum city' is almost as bulky as 'shantaram'.
hmm. all of us seem to have piles of books waiting to be read. and i, for one, have a problem of continuing to add to that pile with unfailing regularity!
i just finished 'the kite runner' by khaled hosseini. wonderful story and it just brings afghanistan to life.

muscati said...

Yep, we're a sad lot us book addicts. Sometimes I get a package from Amazon and the same day or week I find myself in a local bookshop buying more books. Plus now one of the distributors started putting large selections of new books in all the supermarkets so now I find myself buying books even when I'm doing the grocery shopping.

I decided to put a stop to it and I will not buy any more books till I drastically reduce the number of books in my unread books shelf.

she said...

good luck with that decision. i made it last month and since then have bought four books!

hibbalicious said...

Thanks for the review, i saw it in waterstones the other week and i didnt think it looked interesting but seems im wrong.

If you like big books im currently reading 'Flowers in the attic' its amazing it tells the story of 4 children locked in a room by there grandmother, the book is amazingly written and really engrosses u. There are also different parts like petals in the attic etc but this was the best one.

Mansur said...

This is such a huge problem for me. I have books which I need to read, but I keep on buying more books. I also need to put a stop to this habit, but I just unconsciously buy more and more.


illogicist said...

I have to say, I'd buy it for the cover...I'm like that, beautiful covers get. I've been lucky i guess to get the good ones. Actually, no, thats not quite right, the most recent books I've bought I did so because I read good reviews (the last 2 i picked up both were nominated for awards).

Cloud Atlas, my book of the year so far, has a very similar cover

( is the mass paperback one i think, my version has this cover

And the second one I picked up is Shadow Of The Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which has this cover

although there exist others which are similar).

The Da Vinci Code, which I picked up last week and am almost finished, aslo has a lovely cover, although I picked that one up because, well, its one of those books that you just have to read. Its pretty interesting, but as you indicated its a different type of book. Plot driven I suppose, less concerned with literary power. Cloud Atlas is just a pleasure to read in that sense: every sentence is meticulously carved.

Anyway sorry to ramble on about covers, lol.

illogicist said...

One thing: would u recommend I buy Shantaram here in the UK or from Oman when I go? ...I'm a bit worried about luggage, as theres a number of books im taking. 4 months of omani summer heat makes me read lots.

muscati said...

I'm not sure you can find it here in Oman. In Oman it's rarely possible to go to a bookstore with a particular book in mind and actually find it. Here the process for me is just go and buy whatever I find even if I have no time to read it because usually when I finally want to read that book I might not find it. Like for example a couple months ago I found a hardcover copy of Ian McEwan's new novel Saturday at family bookshop when it had just come out in the UK. I didn't buy it because I had bought a dozen books when I was in Malaysia in January. Then I kept reading really positive reviews of the book so I went back to Family Bookshop and the book was sold out. I went to all their branches plus Turtle's Books and some of the other places that sell books. None of them had it.

Anyhow, my advice is to buy whatever you want to read over the summer and bring it with you. Split them between your checked luggage and your carry-on stuff.

illogicist said...

This Baroque Cycle trilogy seems interesting, from the review I just skimmed through. I wonder, have you read or heard of Gene Wolfe's book of the new sun (its 4 books, I think)?

That series was just stunning.

muscati said...

z - sorry I'm not much for fantasy other than the obligatory Lord of the Rings trilogy. I went through a fantasy phase in high school but it didn't include Book of the New Sun.

Baroque Cycle is a prequel of sorts to Cryptonomicon (even though it's set a few centuries in the past). Now Cryptonomicon is another one of those brilliant books set a new benchmark. It's an amazing blend of history, sci-fi, science, cryptology and bit of cyberpunk. I highly recommend it. Baroque Cycle on the other hand is a very difficult read.

Leila M. said...

muscati, u should just send me a list of books to read. These all look so interesting!

AkaRound Peg said...

I am currently reading Shantaram and its fascinating. I have been to Bombay many many times but Shantaram's Bombay is something I have never seen.

Today Gregory Roberts is being interviewd on TV (in India) at 10 pm. If I manage to get my toddler settled by then I hope to watch it.

In the paper who Chunky Pandey, a wannabe actor that never made it and is mentioned in the book said he was so fascinated by SHantaram if he was not an actor he would have been a gangster.

Interesting, even facinating as the book is, I find Chunky Pandey's ambition rather pathetic - its a sad day when gangsters and murderers become role models! Do I sound horribly self-righteous? I think so :( Its just I dont think Gregory Roberts is role model material.