The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts: Review

When the reader hears that a sequel of Shantaram is out, he is bound to be excited. What would the heroin addict and convicted bank robber-turned-author, who was also the main protagonist of the best-selling, fantastic novel, Shantaram dish up in the new book? However, just as Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman the sequel to her cult book To Kill a Mockingbird, out this year, was a disappointment, The Mountain Shadow does not match up to the original. That, in fact, is the inherent danger of sequels that follow hugely successful first novels.

The Mountain Shadow took a decade to write. The story follows the fortunes of Lin and people he comes across in his life in India. Many of them are familiar — Lin himself, his sweetheart Karla, who keeps making flash appearances throughout the book and has been married for two years to the rich powerful broker, Ranjit, Madame Zhou, Vikram and Didier who though older, is as dangerous as ever.

The themes of both books are different. While Shantaram was based on what the author calls ‘the exile experience’ with many characters being either foreigners in exile or being outcasts in one way or another, The Mountain Shadow is thematically based on the spiritual search for love and faith.Lin’s quest for love and faith starts when, after an exile of two years, he returns to Mumbai from Goa. Back in the pulsating city, he returns to his job as a passport forger for the underworld. It’s a world that has changed though — the mafia leadership has become more volatile and dangerous, many of his friends have gone. He doesn’t stay still for long though, because a behest from the mafia don takes him on a perilous journey, full of unpredictable and treacherous twists and turns.

It is during this journey that many new characters — different from Shantaram — are introduced, probably the most significant one being a fabled holy man atop a mountain whose sermons challenge Lin’s fundamental belief systems.

What appealed the most about Shantaram were the background stories of the characters as they unfolded. We were exposed to the world of the sleazy Mumbai underbelly — a world of gangsters, pimps, actors, prostitutes, drug dealers and addicts seen through the eyes of Australian fugitive, a rookie in India. The first time and first-hand experience of this autobiographical character formed a big part of the successful narrative. Although in The Mountain Shadows the author tries to ‘keep the narrative immediate by anchoring it to some of my (the author’s) real experiences,’ but he loses some of the sense of immediacy of his previous book. Perhaps, this difference in narrative is the effect of his state of being: From a convict on the run, struggling to keep himself afloat in the alien and sometimes savage world of the Mumbai slums to a hugely successful and respected author after a span of a decade. Also, a reader who has not read Shantaram may take some time to get familiar with the host of characters already introduced in the previous novel, especially since there is a multitude of people introduced in the sequel as well.

In both Shantaram and The Mountain Shadows, Gregory David Roberts uses the technique of allegorical referencing to reinforce his themes. In this book, he chooses Virgils’ The Aeneid and The Epic of Gilgamesh for references whereas in Shantaram, he had chosen The Bible and Dante’s Inferno for this purpose. The book is full of one-liners and epithets that can get rather tedious.  Quotable quotes like, ‘A heart filled with greed, pride or hateful feelings is not free,’ ‘A man who is beside himself usually has a fool for company’, ‘it’s lonely at the top, because it’s so crowded at the bottom’ abound.

The Mountain Shadow will possibly be fuelled by Shantaram. The third book in the trilogy, (which is said to be based in Australia in Roberts’ pre-India days) may have a fresher feel.

This review appeared in the Tribune India on 13th Dec, 2015





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