Monday, September 25, 2006

Train reading: The Third World War

[In which Humphrey Hawksley’s doomsday soap gives me the opportunity to shed my benevolent-reviewer skin for once and have some fun instead]

By chance, I happened to revisit a favourite film, Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, just a few days before reading Humphrey Hawksley's "future history" novel The Third World War. Kubrick had begun shooting his movie (about the series of events that precipitate a nuclear holocaust during the Cold War) from a straight script before realising the premise was too horrifying for it to be treated as anything other than a black comedy.
If only Hawksley had taken the same approach. Instead he went and wrote a dead serious pulp thriller about the world's nations blowing each other to little bits. The result: The Third World War is as funny in places as Kubrick's doomsday satire, minus any of the comic intent.

In fairness, if you're among those who believe there is place in popular entertainment for a completely straight-faced treatment of nuclear war, you might appreciate Hawksley's book. Words like "page-turner", that dreaded reviewing cliché (not that we'll stop using it), were coined for this novel. Short sample: on page 1 the Indian prime minister's daughter is chatting on the phone with the US president's daughter. By page 5 the first terrorist attack has commenced and on page 11 a suicide plane crashes into the Indian Parliament, sending 476 MPs to that great legislative assembly in the sky. Page 19, the Pakistani president is assassinated and six flips later a North Korean missile attacks a US air base in Japan. This is a 514-page book. You just know the payoff is going to be earth-shattering (bad pun intended).

At breakneck speed (yes, another cliche), The Third World War zips around the globe to chronicle the political and military shenanigans of at least eight countries. The story takes place a few years from now (there are references to "the Vladimir Putin era" and such) and the protagonists are fictitious, bearing little resemblance to our current leaders. (It could be argued they bear little resemblance to anyone who lives outside the Muppet Show, but that's another matter.) There's the aged British PM who says, "I love Brunei's impenetrable humidity, its jellyfish and its billionaire sultan." There's the US president, the unsubtly named Jim West, whose national security advisor also happens to be his best friend. (They double-dated their future wives in college. Aw shucks.)

There's a whole gallery of such people, but
unrecognisable though they are, not much has changed in the political equations between the countries they lead. The takeover of power by Bad Men in Pakistan and North Korea becomes the catalyst for worldwide disaster. The first nuking naturally sets off a chain reaction, with each country looking to protect its own blowing the world up.

Given the litany of leaders to pick from, Hawksley's choice of Indian PM Vasant Mehta as the book's moral centre is telling. There are definite pro-India leanings here throughout and it's the least devastated country at the story's end (which basically means it hasn't been nuked completely out of existence). India-love may partly be the result of the author's apparent fascination for Bollywood movies: very early on, we are told that the parents of the Indian PM and the Pakistani president played together as children (before the mela of Partition separated them, one supposes). Not long after this, the PM's daughter rips her shirt off to bandage a dying man's wounds. And Mehta himself is apparently indestructible, like some of the characters in Bollywood movies.

Being a well-travelled BBC correspondent, Hawksley naturally has a feel of the political pulse in many countries, and he uses this to his advantage. But his book trips over itself in its attempts to present the horrors of a time when "nuclear weapons stopped being a deterrent and became merely another weapon of war". Since the characters are rarely more than caricatures, beyond a point you stop trying to muster concern for them and start eagerly looking forward to the next nuclear attack instead. (More than once I found myself skipping pages and racing ahead to the next account of big-city devastation. The last few chapters are the equivalent of a morbid video game.)

Inevitably there's plenty of sermonising, and once every hundred pages or so Hawksley does manage to convey something of the insanity of a world headed for mutually assured destruction. But the book's pulp framework conflicts with and eventually overpowers its lofty intentions. Here, for instance, is our first encounter with the Indian PM after Delhi has been nuked: "The food (in the underground bunker) was becoming inedible and Vasant Mehta was feeling helpless and depressed."

Deep. And don’t miss the many solemn passages like this one, where the US president gets a free crash course in human psychology from his daughter:
You know why people hate us? It's because we offer this great brand name, and when things get difficult we turn around and say 'Yeah, but you didn't read the small print.' They don't hate us because we're rich. They hate us because we don't tell them the rules, and we don't tell them because there aren't any ...
(She moves on to an analogy involving HSBC, Citibank and farmers in Argentina and Nigeria, but by then you're flipping forward gleefully to see which gets bombed next, Tokyo or Pyongyang.)

You get the idea. Much like the terrorist plane that takes out the Indian Parliament in the opening chapter, this book moves fast and you can't tear your eyes away from it; but like the plane, it self-destructs.


  1. The way you go about it, I am tempted to pick up the book and read it.
    Love your book reviews. Thanks and keep them coming.

  2. Whoa..476 MPs in the Indian Parliament!! Fiction...definitely fiction.
    Amazing review!! Saki would be proud.

  3. Did a review of it gazillion years ago for BS. You forgot to mention that Vasant Mehta had worked his way up the Indian political ladder by becoming the chief Minister of both Andhra Pradesh and Assam before he got into the Lok Sabha. I found that little detail more unbelievable than anything else in the book. Also HH is an insufferably painful bloke.

  4. Dan Brown goes to Washington/Delhi, you mean?

  5. PM's daughter rips her shirt off...a pageturner indeed. What about the PM daughter-US President daughter angle--is that explored in any detail?

  6. Mandar: thanks. Negative though the review was, the book is quite an entertaining read for a 4-hour train journey.

    Arnab: unfortunately, no. I was hoping for a cross-continental lesbian relationship but these thriller writers never take their implausibilities all the way, do they?

  7. Yeah, not the greatest story ever told. But there was one part I quite liked: when all the leaders got together for that meeting and the Russian president pretended to be drunk so he could work the room. Fascinating dialogue in that scene...

  8. though it took be 5*2 train journies to finish it, i actually did enjoy it. but then again, i also enjoy carlos casternada!

  9. Excellent entry! I'm been looking for topics as interesting as this. Looking forward to your next post.

  10. For some reason everything that discribes russians there is pretty primitive and does not correspond the reality. i dunno why but
    foreigners are very bad in understanding of russian culture and mentality