“Shantaram” is written by a man who, according to the blurb, escaped from prison in Australia, lived for ten years in Bombay establishing a clinic for a slum and working for the mafia. The main character in his novel escaped from a prison in Australia, lived for ten years in Bombay establishing a clinic for a slum and working for the mafia.
So, what does that mean about the novel? It means that the descriptions can all be taken as pretty accurate, because at the time and place the author was in the city (the fallibility of memory is for another post).
But what does that mean about the characters? Are they real? There’s a woman who’s essential to the protagonist’s emotional life, but she could be taken out of the plot entirely and it would still hold together. Does that mean she’s a fiction? Or does that make her more real than any other character?
Maybe most importantly, what does that mean for the reader? For me, it means that every time some sort of unbelievable event or character graces the page, I sit and wonder if it’s “real.”
But novels are true because they are truer than true. Therefore, if parts of the novel are complete fiction, aren’t they more real than the autobiographical bits? Or are the things that “really happened” more true?
Autobiographical novels really challenge our understanding of what is “true” about a novel, of what is important about a writer and his writing. But that’s good, because only by being challenged can we understand what we really think and feel.