Drug wars in the swamps of Brazil

COBRA
BY FREDERICK FORSYTH
Bantam Press, £18.99
by Zoe Strimpel

Classic best-selling thriller writer Forsyth – of the highly acclaimed period pot-boiler The Day of the Jackal – is back. This time his hero’s enemy isn’t a person or group of people, it’s the entire world cocaine trade. The US President has decided to destroy it once and for all in its entirety, as he considers it a real threat to national security. The book opens with a frantic midnight call from an Obama-esque President to the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency when the son of a White House employee is found dead from an overdose.

In light of the violent measures required, the President clears the decks for a man they call The Cobra – the retired Paul Devereux, former head of Special Ops for the CIA. Given carte blanche with this assignment, he can have whatever resources he needs. He can traverse any boundaries too: no questions asked. Devereux is a controversial choice, though, as he is notoriously callous in his dealings with human life. But he’s the perfect choice to host a final incursion into the Brazilian swamps and mangroves of Guinea-Bissau; to bust a major Mexican cartel and start a war among African, US and European kingpins in the trade. As Cobra builds his army, navy and deadly airforce, the book becomes harder and harder to put down.

Sometimes the book feels a bit leaden, as though Forsyth is labouring under the weight of fantastic detail, forgetting that he’s also supposed to be bringing characters to life. But you’re in good hands with this master of the genre, and of the samey choice of airport reads awaiting you in Smiths, this is a good one to go for.

SUPER SAD TRUE
LOVE STORY
BY GARY SHTEYNGART
Granta Books, £12.99
by Zoe Strimpel

Following on from the rampant success of his exceedingly witty Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart is back with another frenetic, pop-art style novel. Set in an America of grisly terminal decline 10 years down the road, Super Sad is perhaps a bit too frenetic, involving a love story, a 1984-style vision of the future, and lots of futuristic pastiche. The result is a bit messy.

Its star is Lenny Abramov, a Soviet Jewish immigrant (like the author), who works for a firm that provides immortality to those who can pay. (Such is the US in 10 years). But, though it earns him good cash, Abramov is hardly an easy-going spoke in the corporate wheel. “Lenny Abramov, your humble diarist, your small non entity, will live forever,” he tells us early on, continuing rather dismally and loaded with post-post modern angst. “The technology is almost here. As the Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) of the Post Human Services Division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation, I will be the first to partake of it. I just have to be good and I have to believe in myself. I have to stay off the trans fats and the hooch. I just have to drink plenty of green tea and alkalinized water and submit my genome to the right people. I will need to regrow my melting liver, replace the entire circulatory system with “smart blood” and find someplace safe and warm (but not too warm) to while away the angry seasons and the holocausts.” Lovely.

This hyperactive, surreal style won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it bursts with a certain demented energy that some will find appealing. As for the love story referred to in the title, Lenny falls for the Korean-American Eunice Park at a party in Rome. Again, this isn’t your average Romeo and Juliet love story: “In front of me, Eunice Park. A nano-sized woman who had likely never known the tickle of her own pubic hair, who lacked both breast and scent, who existed as easily on an apparat [futuristic smartphone] screen as on the street before me."

This is an imaginative book, to be sure. Fans of surreal American writers like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon will be in seventh heaven. The rest of us will walk away feeling like our head hurts.

EVERYTHING IS BROKEN:
THE UNTOLD STORY OF DISASTER UNDER BURMA’S MILITARY REGIME
BY EMMA LARKIN
Granta Books, £12.99
by Alex Deane

This is a very good book with a slightly misleading title. Whilst Larkin’s book certainly reveals a litany of suffering and woe in Burma, it might not be apparent from the title that it’s a narrative of a particular disaster: perhaps two thirds of it is about the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis which hit Burma in May 2008. If you are seeking a review of the manifold sins of Burma’s repulsive military regime, Shelby Tucker’s “Burma: the Curse of Independence” would stand you in better stead (not least because that text, unlike this one, has an index – the lack of which is lamentable, if increasingly common).

The story of Nargis and its impact in Burma is one well worth telling, though. The cyclone was the worst natural disaster to hit Burma in recorded history. The Americans – much-maligned, and always the first to assist when calamity strikes – had helicopters filled with aid materials fuelled and ready for take-off on Thai airstrips. Famously (or rather, infamously), Burma’s government refused to permit that aid into the country. The regime’s determination to cling to power dwarfs any interest they might have had in the wellbeing of the people over whom they rule.

The coming of foreigners might have threatened their ability to subjugate, so – despite unbelievable privation – they kept aid out. The regime continued to refuse UN or any other assistance entry into the country, as tens of thousands of people died: foreign aid workers were kept out of Burma, and those already in the country were kept within Rangoon, where they couldn’t get out to give help to those who needed it.

Told through the prism of this disaster, the suffering story of the people of Burma is all the more harrowing. This is a masterly debunking of an illegitimate regime whose existence, for the most part, we collectively ignore. Alex Deane is the Director of Big Brother Watch, a think tank.