On Henderson the Rain King & Shantaram

I’m not sure what to make of HtRK, only that it bears many parallels with another novel I read the other week, Shantaram, in which a typical white guy becomes enamored with a foreign culture, one in Africa, the other in India. Both also have a similar rating and similar problems. They are both thematically generic and have a relatively blad plot with occasional moments that try to provide substance. A weakness of HtRK is that its moments are filled with bizarre observations by the protagonist, such as:

I wish my dead days would quit bothering me and leave me alone. The bad stuff keeps coming back, and it’s the worst rhythm there is. The repetition of a man’s bad self, that’s the worst suffering that’s ever been known.

-Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

In Shantaram these moments are marinated with every cliché consisting of the words world and heart. Actually, everyone in these novels talks in such platitudes, baring their dense Indian/African speech patterns- which, in the case of HtRK, are borderline bigoted at times. Never mind immersing oneself in other cultures, our authors are prone to whitening them up.

Indians are the Italians of Asia and vice versa. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is the music inside the body and music is the food inside the heart. Amore or Pyar makes every man a poet, a princess of peasant girl if only for second eyes of man and woman meets.

-Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

This is one of those novels that hasn’t earned its reputation, and will surely not become a classic as time passes. But its author believes it to be a masterpiece, and if he hadn’t why else would he have spent 13 years of his life writing its near 1000 pages? Yet in all that, there is only one character I consider even remotely interesting- this is Prabu, Greg’s Indian companion- and that includes Greg himself. The highest part of the novel artistically, albeit lowest emotionally, is a scene in which (spoilers), upon mentioning at every turn of the book his infectious smile, Prabu’s face is destroyed in an accident, and he dies having lost that smile. This moment is handled with great care, and it does a great service to Roberts’ friend. There is nothing like this in Bellow’s story, but neither does it have the low points of pages and pages of blah blah as Shantaram.

A significant issue in either work is how women are treated: there is no female characterization at all and the women- as dull as the male characters are- are as one dimensional as they come. In fact, the love interest of Shantaram is so forgettable that despite featuring in a sizeable chunk of the book, the entire point of her story amounts to- be careful of pretty girls sonny. This is, however, the most interesting female character between the two works.

So yeah: wooden, overrated, and trite, but you may enjoy the respective plots. These are books for teenage boys, and while they don’t quite reach the depth that they could, there is fun to be had, and that’s why I give these two a rating typical of most genre fiction, but not profound literature as they desire to be. In short, they promised more than they could deliver, but they did deliver in some areas. So not failures, just good, solid stories.

Mutual Rating: 5/10


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