Academic journal article Antipodes

Shantaram: Portrait of an Australian Bestseller

Academic journal article Antipodes

Shantaram: Portrait of an Australian Bestseller

Article excerpt

gregory daVid robertS'S Semi-autobiographical noVel shantaraM haS been an Australian bestseller since its original publication in 2003. Marketed largely as nonfiction, Shantaram presents a fictionalized version of the author's experiences as a criminal on the run, particularly his adventures in the Mumbai underworld. Rob- erts's novel stands out in the field of Australian literary production, which has been characterized by declining fiction sales in recent years. Following in the footsteps of many notable convict authors, Roberts has also drawn on a number of generic conven- tions to produce one of the most notable bestsellers in Australian publishing history. A novel displaying elements of popular fiction, literary fiction, and autobiography, Shantaram unsettles categories, consequently it has attracted little academic consider- ation. With a narrative that straddles Australia and India, Shantaram displays a "cos- mopolitanism," which has allowed it to transcend national boundaries. In terms of its popularity, Shantaram is anomalous in the Australian literary landscape. Its healthy sales figures challenge the notion that Australian novels are not read by local, let alone global audiences. The ongoing success of Shantaram in Australia and overseas can also be partly attributed to Roberts's entrepreneurial approach to promoting his writing, which is intimately bound up with his colorful "criminal" persona. The provenance of Shantaram-and the varied phenomena associated with it-serve to illuminate sig- nificant aspects of the current publishing scene. Due to the dearth of extended critical writing on Shantaram, this article draws upon reviews from newspapers and periodi- cals along with online fan responses to account for its robust readership.

introduction

In 1978, Gregory David Roberts (formerly known as Gregory John Peter Smith) committed a series of armed robberies in Melbourne while addicted to heroin and was later sentenced to nineteen years imprisonment. Shantaram is the story of Rob- erts's escape from Pentridge prison in 1980, and his ten years on the run in Asia, before his extradition from Germany and the completion of his sentence back in Australia. Promoted as a novel based on the author's own experiences, it has the appeal of autobiography while retaining the "artistic license" of fiction. Shantaram follows the adventures of the protagonist Lindsey or "Lin" in Mumbai-and later in Afghanistan-after his escape from Pentridge. The narrative begins with Lin's arrival in India with a forged passport and new identity. At first he sees the city through the eyes of the backpackers he befriends, but soon becomes familiar with the world of the slums thanks to his local guide Prabaker. It is as a result of Prabaker's invitation to visit his home village in Maharashtra that Lin is dubbed "Shantaram" or "man of peace," despite his violent past. This re-naming allows Lin to reinvent himself and begin to make amends for his crimes. The labyrinthine plot mimics the collec- tion of dwellings Lin encounters when he enters the vast slum region of Mumbai. The narrative twists and turns, following Lin's skirmishes in the underworld, his romantic attachment to Karla, a mysterious Swiss businesswoman, and his attempts at redemption through service as a slum doctor.

an auStralian deSperate in bombay

Although Shantaram may seem unique in the context of the contemporary Aus- tralian literary scene, it joins a considerable tradition of Australian writing about India. Australia's first travel book about India is James Hingston's The Australian Abroad (1879), which reveals Hingston's fascination with "the strangeness and in- tractable difference of the mysterious East" (Walker 17-9). Another notable work, Mollie Skinner's Tucker Sees India (1937), features Tucker, a rough and ready Aus- tralian who gets caught up in a number of Indian adventures en route to the "real" war. Bruce Bennett observes that at the end of the novel, Tucker has "seen India" and is ready for anything life may throw at him (Bennett 555). …

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