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The Godfather of Kathmandu
John Burdett
Knopf, 298 pages

The Godfather of Kathmandu
John Burdett
John Burdett is a nonpracticing lawyer who worked in Hong Kong for a British firm until he found his true vocation as a writer. He has also lived in France, Spain, and Thailand. He is the author of A Personal History of Thirst, The Last Six Million Seconds, Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts.

John Burdett Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jason Erik Lundberg

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In the Sutta Pitaka, it is said that the Buddha himself predicted the end of Buddhism after 5,000 years (which would happen sometime around the year 2600, although this date is up for debate). Human beings will degenerate into materialism and amorality to the extent that his teachings will no longer be accepted and will disappear; at that point, Maitreya Buddha will incarnate into the world to teach pure Buddhism and (hopefully) start the process again. For Buddhists, this eschatology provides an urgency toward attaining enlightenment; why remain in samsara (cyclic existence) for thousands of years and endure countless lifetimes worth of suffering and rebirth, especially when the Dharma is in such a null state?

For Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, our humble narrator of The Godfather of Kathmandu (and of John Burdett's previous novels Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, and Bangkok Haunts), release from samsara is doubly urgent: his six-year-old son Pichai has been killed in a traffic accident, and his wife Chanya has fled to a nunnery in her grief. The beginning of the novel sees Sonchai as a broken man, surviving his despair through liberal consumption of marijuana and the recitation of an ego-annihilating mantra given to him by a Tibetan yogin in Nepal. He wants nothing less than to reach the Far Shore and renounce all attachments, but, as with all good crime novels, circumstances conspire to keep him in the world.

Sonchai's boss and surrogate father, Police Colonel Vikorn, appoints Sonchai as his consigliere after enthusiastically embracing Marlon Brando's character in The Godfather, and wants him to engineer a deal to buy $40 million worth of heroin from the above-mentioned exiled Tibetan named Tietsin. Also foremost in Sonchai's mind is the bizarre murder of a very wealthy farang (foreigner) and filmmaker in a Bangkok flophouse, killed in a manner inspired by Thomas Harris' novel Hannibal. All of this happens while Sonchai is still mourning the death of his boy, a double blow as Pichai was the reincarnation of his namesake, Sonchai's partner and soul-brother, who was killed at the beginning of Bangkok 8.

At times, The Godfather of Kathmandu feels as if it is trying to be two books. The main plots -- the farang murder and the heroin deal -- jockey for narrative attention, each one taking up lumps of pages before switching back to the other, with no obvious connection other than that they are happening concurrently. In addition, the farang murder spins out into a conspiracy with so much complexity that it frankly needs more space to breathe and untangle in order to avoid confusion. As such, the novel feels more unfocused and loose than Burdett's previous efforts, and in the end, less satisfying.

However, Sonchai's (occasionally intrusive) insights into Buddhism, prostitution, the mundane interaction with the supernatural, and life in Thailand's busiest and most populous city continue to reveal erudition into the Southeast Asian mindset. His authority in these subjects is somewhat rattled by his personal circumstances, but his voice still remains memorable and compelling enough to keep one coming back to it again and again.

Copyright © 2010 Jason Erik Lundberg

Jason Erik Lundberg is a writer of fantastical fiction, and an American expatriate living in Singapore. His work has appeared (or will soon) in over forty venues in five countries. He runs Two Cranes Press with Janet Chui. Visit his web site.


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