Most helpful critical review
Such a shame there's no 'no-star' option
on 7 April 2012
It's rare that a book leaves me with a nasty taste in my mouth, but Bunker 13 is a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work.
Minty Mehta - or MM as he's referred to through the book - is a disgraced army-cadet turned investigative journalist who has managed to get himself embedded with the Indian military. The novel starts with him at the parachute training centre and then follows him off on missions with the Indian Special Forces engaged in conflict in Kashmir on the disputed border with Pakistan. He takes a lot of drugs, gets involved in smuggling operations, sets different regiments off against one another, brokers deals with foreign 'organisations' for guns, drugs and secrets, and isn't averse to killing people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. His apparent mission is to kill plenty of 'mossies' (Muslims to you and me) and to take as many hard drugs as possible. In between he has strangely unfulfilling sexual encounters with various women. I know what you're thinking - "What a lovely fellow! What's not to like about our Minty?"
I hated this book from the moment I opened it. I was taken in by the cover quotation likening it to "Catch 22 rewritten by Hunter S Thompson". What the reviewer who said that seemed to have missed was that Catch 22 was a work of great black humour and compassion - two elements very sadly lacking in Bunker 13. Whilst the trader wheeler-dealer of Catch 22 did admittedly sell off all the drugs from the medical kits, it was generally to get eggs or other goodies for his comrades. When MM steals and finagles drugs and guns, he's seemingly doing it purely for his own benefit.
The book opens with MM writing to the Indian army chief, asking to make a documentary about how paratroopers are trained. He claims it will be a 'great image-building' exercise that will help the army to recruit new elite troops. But behind the scenes, MM describes this as one of "the many ways that a homo sapiens with an IQ of 130 can f*** himself in the flagging end of the twentieth century". MM is off to parachute school, learning how to fall and creating ever more extreme ways to take ever more dangerous drugs whilst free-falling through the air with his buddy Major Rodriguez. The creativity required to main-line heroin and the sense of control required to still pull your chord at the right time, defies belief. I hate to think how many impressionable people might read this book and think this sort of stuff is 'big and clever'. People get killed, nobody cares, as Rodriguez and MM try to out-shock each other. It's just plain nasty.
After wading through over 300 pages of poorly written yukky prose, the 'twist' at the end is utterly ridiculous and beggars belief. A good twist should make you think "Aha, so that's what it was all about. It all slots into place now". This one leaves you thinking "I will never get back the hours of my life which I have squandered on this unmitigated pap". Two further aspects - aside from the ridiculous plot - that drove me crazy were Bahal's love of writing page after page of descriptions of different types of guns or other armaments, and most of all the ludicrous stylistic device of writing the entire book as if you, the reader, are the central character and it's all happening in the present tense. For example: "Speed is essential. You want to swoop before the Mossies get any advanced warning". It's like that the whole way through. If Bahal has the idea that writing 'at' us in this way will somehow make us feel more involvement with and sympathy for MM. Simply put, it just doesn't work.
Aniruddha Bahal is apparently a bit of a big-cheese in the Indian investigative journalism world, or at least that's what his website claims. I'm guessing he's a sort of Donal Macintyre of the sub-continent. In 1997 he uncovered fraud and match-fixing in Indian cricket, and then went on to lift the lid on fraud in politics (who'd have imagined!) which led to the resignation of two very senior BJP politicians. Thankfully he admits that Bunker 13 is entirely fictional. Let's be grateful for small mercies.
Allegedly the media frenzy surrounding Bunker 13 was intense and likened to the attention that The God of Small Things got when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize. I can only say that the frenzy must have been absolutely the only thing that these two books could possibly have had in common.