Autobiography as Pulp Fiction:
Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram
By Stuart Hopen.
We never learn the narrator’s actual name; which is not to say the narrator is unnamed. In fact, he has many names and many identities. The narrator’s “good name” as that term is used under the local parlance, is Lindsay, but that came from a counterfeit passport. The Indian locals call him “Linbaba,” or “Mr. Penis.” He will acquire other names in the course of the novel, including the title of the novel itself, which means “man of God’s Peace.”
The narrator’s s real name might be the author’s, for the book’s jacket touts many similarities between the fictional narrator and Gregory David Roberts. Both author and his fictionalized alter ego were driven by despair over a bitter divorce and child custody award to seek solace in heroin addiction, which led to crime, prison, escape, and then flight to a slum in India.
Even though almost all fiction contains varying degrees of autobiography, and vice versa, a close identification between author and fictitious character carries many risks. One can’t help but snicker at the photos of Ian Fleming, gun in hand, on the James Bond book covers. Falsified autobiography is a class of literary pariah unto itself, for anger follows the discovery that one has been successfully fooled, notwithstanding the way that achieving the same end is lauded as a virtue in a work explicitly labeled as fiction. Perhaps with the aim of avoiding the kind of scrutiny and controversy that befell Henri Charrière, the author of Papillion, another highly embellished, ostensibly autobiographical work about prison and escape, the author of Shantaram delivers an exculpatory disclaimer—this is fiction. But there an implicit disclaimer to disclaimer. It is kind of a con job, but it is a brilliant con job.
Roberts grabs his reader by the labels, and demands attention with his superb opening paragraph, a near perfect fusion of narrative hook, character arc, and thematic summation:
“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life. “
Lindsay and Roberts both share various careers, including healer, forger, gangster, and gunrunner. Throughout the 900 plus pages of a construct that is more like a series of related short stories, vignettes and anecdotes than a novel, Roberts dangles Lindsay precariously between the extremes of pulp fiction and his own remarkable life. There are many heartbreaking descriptions that ring with authenticity born of first hand observation: the experience of being chained, the sorrows of beggars and slaves, and the brutality of butchers. These accounts are full of vivid details– like the sound of kerosene heaters exploding like mortar fire as an uncontrolled blaze sweeps over closely packed clapboard hovels, or rivers of enormous rats that flow through a city with the regularity of tides, or men who piss on their own hands to keep them warm against an oppressive mountain cold. Other scenes seem torn from the pages of Argosy, like a knife-fight involving identical twin eunuchs in the shell of a burned-out whorehouse.
The delicate balancing of hard truth and fantastic fiction is one of Roberts’ most significant accomplishments. Both elements ring with their own respective brands of truth, and in concert, they still ring true– but it is the other brand of true. It is a self-contracting, self-referential brand of true. In a proclamation redolent with ironies reflexive of the novel’s inner workings, Lindsay tells us:
“There is a truth that is deeper than experience. It is beyond what we see, or even what we feel. It is an order of truth that separates the profound from the merely clever, and the reality from the perception. We’re helpless, usually, in the face of it; and the cost of knowing it, like the cost of knowing love, is sometimes greater than any heart would willingly pay. It doesn’t help us to love the world, but it does prevent us from hating the world.”
The hero himself is an outsider among the outsiders who populate this novel–beggars, forgers, street brawlers, prostitutes, gangsters, and lepers. Lindsay’s artistic and intellectual proclivities alternately earn respect or derision from the convicts and thugs with whom he associates, but these traits rarely earn their fraternity. He denies being a killer, excluding himself from that brotherhood, though he confides to the reader that he once plunged the wet end of a knife into a fellow convict’s chest, and never saw the man again after he was wheeled off to the infirmary. Perhaps that incident didn’t count because it wasn’t a confirmed kill.
The author has fashioned a protagonist imbued with masculine virtues, mythologizing himself, sometimes in the spirit of Ernest Hemingway and sometimes in the spirit of Ian Fleming. Lindsay presents as a kind of a pulp hero, speaking many languages, brawling and shooting his way through dangerous exotic realms, defusing tense situations with clever remarks, seducing beautiful women (even winning the heart of a celebrated starlet while he is confined to prison), performing noble, unselfish and brave acts. He doesn’t hesitate to bite into a convict’s face, or gouge out an assassin’s eye. Yet he is courteous enough to pop the eye back into its socket when the fight is over. He isn’t afraid to stare into the abyss for an adrenaline rush, and to stare down the abyss when it tries to stare back. He seems much more a Mr. Penis than a man of God’s peace, unless God’s peace is closer to war than actual peace, unless it means conflict and engagement, grace under pressure, and transcendence.
Lindsay takes on the role of a local healer in an Indian slum– a calling somehow noble and redemptive, but undertaken with trepidation. His modest prior experience with medicine comes from a first aid class, enhanced by covert practice on fellow junkies who needed CPR or suturing fellow inmates when circumstances demanded that wounds be hidden from the guards. Sick and injured denizens of the slum arrive in a steady stream, pleading for Lindsay’s attentions. In one illustrative case, the victim of a knife fight threatens to sew up his own wounds and suffer the consequences– even to the point of death should Lindsay deny care. So Lindsay acquiesces, even though the lacerated youth really needs the attention of an actual physician.
Lindsay’s role as healer seems dictated by moral imperatives, but it is a quirky kind of morality, informed by a sense of alienation and distrust of social institutions that permeates the novel. The unauthorized practice of medicine is as much a felony as armed robbery, gun running, or any other various crimes committed by Lindsay over the course of the novel, and it is potentially just as dangerous to its victims. But no disasters result from Lindsay’s care. Perhaps that is a fiction, or perhaps the same innate qualities that empower Roberts’ writing allowed him to become an effective healer in real life—a genius born of careful observation, intuition, intensive reading, and crude on-the-job training.
Indeed, Robert’s writing shares many characteristics with Lindsay’s practice of medicine. There is an unschooled quality to it, deviating from the safety of academic protocols. It sometimes lacks precision. It certainly isn’t antiseptic. The prose is like Lindsay’s suturing without the aid of forceps; a direct engagement in the penetration of flesh. It will leave scars.