LIGHTS OUT IN
By DBC Pierre
Faber & Faber, £12.99
by Jeremy Hazlehurst
DBC Pierre’s first novel, Vernon God Little, was a brilliant act of ventriloquism in which he channelled the voice of a 15-year-old American boy on death row for a murder. This – his third novel – also tries to capture the state of the world through another young man struggling to make sense of his peculiar segment of it, and is also a no-holds-barred, scorched-earth critique of capitalism.
Our narrator is the angelically-named Gabriel Brockwell – confused anti-capitalist and self-confessed bad poet, microwave chef, drug-abuser and all-round loser. He decides to commit suicide, but after one last bender with his pal Nelson Smuts, who is working as a chef in a Tokyo restaurant. Drugs, high-end booze and a sexual encounter with an octopus follow.
Soon we are in Berlin – site of capitalism’s triumph over Communism – where Smuts is hired to create a menu that is evidently meant to suggest Trimalchio’s famously decadent feast in Petronius’ Satyricon. Koalas, rhinos and monkeys are on the menu, as are drugs, booze and grubby decadence.
The fantasies about high-end cuisine are baroque and beyond, the whole thing becomes so cartoonishly hyper-real that the satirical intent is drowned. It’s not helped by ponderous asides (often in footnotes which break the story’s flow) about Thatcherism and totalitarianism, and the general decadence of market capitalism.
The problem with ventriloquism is that you are dependent on the quality of your dummy. Vernon Little was a sharp, acerbic, mercurial, surprising and witty one. Gabriel is just a dummy.
For all its invention, the characters and the world Lights Out creates are prosaic, and after a couple of hundred pages the stylised, over-rich dialogue is hard to digest – almost as hard as a plate of monkey-brain ravioli.
BY CJ CHIVERS
Allen Lane, £25
by Jeremy Hazlehurst
THE history of the Kalashnikov rifle might seem a bloodthirsty topic, if not one reserved only for bores and gun nuts, but in the hands of this Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist – who was formerly a marine who fought in the first Gulf War – it is a fascinating look at mass production, industrialisation, and the way that technology shapes the world.
To illustrate this, a few Kalashnikov facts from the book: there is one for every 70 people alive; they are so widely available and easy to use that the Chukti people of the western Pacific shoot whales with them; guns made in 1953 are still being used by Afghan militants; the flag of Mozambique has a Kalashnikov on it, where it has equal billing with a hoe and a book. Remember, too, that it features on murals in Belfast. It is one of the icons of our era.
The Kalashnikov is a product of state manufacture – only the Soviet system could have devoted such expertise and know-how to creating a 10lb gun with so much firepower.
When the USSR collapsed, the guns it manufactured spread all over the world. The wars in many parts of the world could only have been fought with them; it has made child soldiers and guerilla armies possible. As Chivers says: “War reorganized around Stalin’s gun”.
Chivers follows the sad, strange career of General Kalashnikov, used as a salesman to flog his gun to dictators and repressive regimes all over the world, and also tells the surprising secret history of how firearms determine the course of wars – had the Americans in Vietnam had better guns, history might have been very different.
In his novel Bomber, Len Deighton suggests that war is driven by machines, and that the possibilities they allow become inevitable. We are drawn along by heavy bombers, atomic bombs and other weapons, and lives change to fit the patterns their weapons create. The history of the Kalashnikov suggests that rather than being a fanciful notion, it’s a melancholy truth.
THAN SHWE: UNMASKING
By Benedict Rogers
by Alex Deane
ONE balks at the notion of men so undeserving as Than Shwe as the subject of biographies. But evil and tyranny must not only be loathed – it must also be understood.
That Shwe, Burma’s ruthless, brutal dictator, is perhaps the foremost proponent of such qualities in our time, and thus thoroughly merits the attention given to him by this scholarly and timely book.
It’s timely because on 7 November Burma will hold “elections”. They will be a total sham. That Shwe will win. That is entirely predictable; just as predictable as the suffering that his countrymen will endure as a result of his continued power.
What deserves reflection and indeed demands our attention is the apathetic approach that countries around the world have adopted and continue to adopt in response to what is happening there, and the sheer extent of the human depravity that occurs there as a result.
Rogers advances a compelling and convincing case that Burma’s tyrant has committed crimes against humanity. Rogers does not pull his punches (nor should he, of course). I unashamedly confess that I had to put this book down a number of times and let my emotions settle.
It is impossible to read of the massacring of thousands, the torturing and brutal mutilation of thousands more, of the use of people as human landmine detectors, of the massacring of families and villages, with equanimity.
What Rogers achieves, forensically and precisely, is the demonstration of the plain fact that this heap of pain, indignity and subjugation is done at Than Shwe’s direct behest. It is difficult to know at times whether one is reading a biography or a lengthy and graphic criminal indictment.
For years Rogers has dedicated his life to exposing the tragic wrongdoings in this former British colony and this, the first ever biography of the Beast of Burma, is the ultimate fruit of his efforts.
At £21 for a paperback copy, it’s most unlikely to be taken up by the casual reader – but for anyone with a serious interest in Burma, or in the way that evil develops and is allowed to develop, this book is a must-read.
Alex Deane is the director of Big Brother Watch, a think tank
Jeremy Hazlehurst, Alex Deane