Sunday, June 24, 2012
Slash and Burn by Colin Cotterill
Readers meeting Dr. Siri and his cohorts for the first time in this eighth in the Siri series might very well wonder what they had stumbled into. Farce, cross-dressing, and the supernatural are not characteristics we instinctively think of when reviewing our knowledge of communist Laos, but Cotterill shows us that Laos has it all. A world more remote from everyday American life would be hard to find, but Cotterill manages to make a seventy-plus-year-old government coroner the best guide to Lao life.
Usually Lao communist government policies are the target of Cotterill’s acerbic wit, but this book introduces a group of Americans searching for the body of a downed pilot. The target thus shifts, and Cotterill uses history against the Americans. Carpet bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War era left scars on the country, killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of villagers, and led to the discovery of gold in the mountainous bombed areas of eastern Laos. (It‘s true, according to the New York Times in 2002.)
We are also given an outsiders’ view of the American election cycle in which senators buy their seats and fathers murder their own sons to further their personal fortunes or political ambitions. One could argue it looks like that to outsiders, particularly to outsiders viewing our current elections politics and who do not subscribe to American reliance on self as opposed to family, community, or larger social groups. But it is all done with a sense of parody and the absurd foremost.
One does have to wonder, however, how much the Lao characters are Lao in name only and how much a western mindset is overlaid their thoughts and actions. I have always wondered this about the series and can’t help but suspect these folks are too cosmopolitan and worldly-wise, despite their ages, for a country as closed and psychically distant as Laos. It’s all in Cotterill’s mind, and what a mind it is! Great fiction here, folks: Take the trip.
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