I first heard of this due to its two-sentence write up in Lonely Planet, which said simply “Gregory David Roberts’ vivid experiences of his life in India. A traveller favourite!” They neglected to mention that it was a 900 page long exercise in self-indulgence featuring prose so purple that Mills and Boon would have been asking an editor to tone it down. Sadly, it’s something of a backpackers favourite, although, somewhat fortunately, people’s opinions of it tend to be a reasonably accurate bellwether of just how interesting I will find that person.
Roberts certainly has one hell of a backstory – an Australian philosophy student who committed armed robberies to fund his heroin addiction, he then escaped from prison and made his way to Bombay, where he lived in the slums, became involved with the Bombay mafia, and ended up fighting for the Afghan mujahadeen during the Soviet invasion. The fictionalised experiences of ‘Lin’ are based on his life (although the veracity of many of the claims have been questioned), and it’s at least clear that Roberts does have a love for Bombay and its people, although there’s an arguably an element of condescension in the portrayal of characters such as Prabaker, with his perenially ‘radiant smile.”
The improbable adventures certainly proceed apace, but they are intertwined with pages of po-faced cod philosophy courtesy of Lin’s conversations with Abdel Kader Khan, intellectual mafia don and surrogate father figure. Worse still is the central character of Lin himself, who seems to embody every misunderstood, tortured anti-hero cliché from the toxic masculinity playbook. He’s tough, but sensitive: a warrior and intellectual with a medical vocation, a willingness to use his fists and a drug problem. Everyone fawns over him, except (of course) the predictably beautiful, inscrutable Karla, who he’s tediously in love with. Yawn.
And the writing. Oh, the writing. Well, here’s a sample featuring Lin and Karla. “We kissed. Our lips made thoughts, somehow, the kind of thoughts that feelings have. Our tongues writhed, and slithered in their caves of pleasure.” Nonsensical and repulsive in only three sentences, yaar! His campaign for consideration in the Bad Sex Awards continued apace: “My body was her chariot, and she drove it into the sun. Her body was my river, and I became the sea.” He was indeed longlisted, but sadly did not take the prize.
A sequel has since been published, and apparently a prequel featuring Roberts’ imprisonment in Australia is also envisioned. Whatever he writes, though, it’s fair to say that I won’t be reading it.