Since this book has already been reviewed in several places, I'm going to dispense a bit with the bio that accompanies it in these reviews, which is also available on the website.
A few things about genre, instead: this is an adventure novel, one could even call it an epic. It's been described as "sprawling", "swashbuckling", "picaresque" and it is being made into a movie starring Johnny Depp, set for release in 2009.
In Wikipedia they declare the novel to be written in "roman a clef" which in following their wiki-link reveals:
"A roman à clef or roman à clé (French for "novel with a key") is a novel describing real-life behind a façade of fiction. The 'key' is usually a famous figure or, in some cases, the author."
This falls in with a lot of these "sorta" genres that lie somewhere between fact and fiction such as creative nonfiction, gonzo journalism, picaresque, mock-umentary and so on. Perhaps it would be appropriate to construct a gradient scale of these with the arrow of Truth, showcasing Percentage Of respective to the story, pointing to examples, although I'm not sure who would be interested.
When it comes to this novel, one can conclude this, regardless of genre: If this story is even 20 % true then the author is lucky to be alive. Bombay is portrayed as a city of glittering malevolence, as a city where you would not want to be overly-assertive, abandoned or lost, yet the main character, an Australian fugitive named Linbaba by his porter (a name that in the Marathi language sounds like Dick Hero) is all three of these yet manages to survive by his wits, by his fists, by the hospitality of the Indian people, and sometimes he just gets lucky.
At first I wanted to say "this is Batman in India", then I thought he's trying to make India the new Temporary Autonomous Zone, which would explain Johnny Depp's interest, but then I realized that this is not a story that knew it was a story at the time, its a story of a man who has lost it all and is merely surviving by surrendering his will and his identity into the Indian culture, "total immersion" except there's no tour guide to yank you back from the abyss with a hook, no reality-tv cameraman to switch off his dv-cam and say 'let's take a fiver!"
We see up close and personal a slummy, gritty India and, later, Afghanistan in the early-to-mid 80s, with all of the rampant diseases, soulless mercenaries and wild, roving animals you would expect. Roberts, though he admires Durrell, does not have a style that much compares, except for the subject matter. His style is more journalistic. This happened, then this happened, then this, punctuated with sufficient, if not elegantly-worded, description of people and places, and also slowed in the skull-cracking action by philosophical asides and ruminations on ethics. The tale is so gripping and multifaceted one hardly notices a flaw. I recalled the effect of reading Sidney Sheldon as similar.
As much of Lin's struggle is concerned with mere survival and reacting to whatever crisis the Indian people bring to him, it at times becomes confusing to the reader what he is striving for exactly. His motive is hidden from others, and often from himself. He chases elements of comfort, friendship and freedom as if the desired were an algebraic X at the end of a long, intricate equation. He only seems to awaken into what he wants at the result of a physical intrusion of someone else, which leaves question marks for the reader, but one has to consider that this is a normal reaction of a man under extreme stress. At one point at around the beginning of part 4, we wonder if the success of a relationship desired will be enough for him, but he walks out of this to keep a promise to someone little better than an acquaintance, and there is a lag in the tale at this point.
This is made up, however by the sudden deaths of some main characters, one of whom appears later in a highly unpredictable, and touching, twist, and an odyssey into the mountains of Afghanistan with his Afghan organized-crime partners. This part of the book was the best, because the description really puts you there, and it highlighted a lot of the themes that had been developing over the course of the novel: friendship, loyalty, religion, trust, forgiveness, and the philosophical motivations for fighting, not just this war against what was the USSR at the time, but fighting anything.
These are troublesome themes for Lin throughout the story because he finds himself in a fight about once every two weeks, including episodes of being tortured in a gnarly postcolonial jail. But the book is so large, 900 pages, though it reads fast, that it far makes up for the gruesomeness of street business with the heart and warmth of the Indian people, (that is, the non-mafia people) who are portrayed as friendly, responsible and charming. Since Lin has much of the street-brawling ability, he is often "hired" for protective purposes, but he does spend a good portion of time in Bombay in the medical "clinic" of a slum, assisting the infirm and unfortunate. Lin attempts to have heart, and so does the book, mostly once the climactic war scenes are concluded - one especially excellent lingers, where a muj and friend of Lin's who had at one time been schooled in New York drops his gun after killing a man, has a moment of insight and walks off into the snow muttering the Koran. Men at their edge, giving everything they got, up against horrible odds, and its real. Or that is, it's roman a clef real.
There are so many characters of Indian or Afghan descent that one has difficulty distinctly picturing them all, in the habit a reader often has of forming a mental image of a character in a book based on someone they know or have met. Somehow I was nearly able to do it, until about page 800 or so - have I known that many Indians or Pakistanis? Yes I guess I have.
Johnny Depp is set to play this character in the film for 2009, and while he did succeed as the introverted bohemian pirate Jack Sparrow, and teenage girls in drama clubs everywhere rejoiced upon the sequels, I can't imagine him in this role, unless the script diverges wildly from the novel and much of the physicality is written out.
But without the physicality, there wouldn't be as much of a story, because Lin would already have been dead on page 200. It'll be interesting to see what they do. Roberts meanwhile will be back in Australia, spreading his message of "cosmophony" which appears to be derived from the philosophy of the Bombay mafia leader (but maybe not). Saatch aur Hamaat was the gang motto - Truth and Courage. Roberts may be done with "courage" at this point in life, but still persists on a path of truth, for what its worth. Shantaram means "man of peace," and Lin does live up to that moniker in a rather unexpected way.