The “Devil’s Alternative” by Frederick Forsyth is by contemporary standards a lengthy yarn of 475 pages. Set in a 1970s backdrop, not surprising as it was first published in 1979 this book is set in the Cold War period of international rivalry between the Soviet Union and America. In light of the currently prevailing climate of east-west tensions many of you might find it a particularly worthwhile book. That’s why I’m reviewing it now, quite a while later.
It’s my intention here to note down my impressions of the book rather than engage in a step by step reconstruction of the plot which you can anyway get from any conventional ‘cardboard’ review, as I call such write-ups.
There are many themes involved in this book beyond the obvious backdrop of the Cold War and its restrictions. These are nationalism, love, ecological devastation, espionage and above all terrorism. The remarkable thing about Frederick Forsyth is that he highlights that the more things appear to change, the more they remain the same. We realize thereby that only the emblems have changed but not the issues.
Apart from these aspects, Frederick Forsyth’s book explores a highly elitist world of world statesman, diplomats who double up as spies and military personnel. In the latter context the book might not be something that many people may lack the ability to relate to unless you aren’t part of the privileged or haven’t lived in the West. Fortunately, and even at the risk of appearing snobbish I must say I don’t suffer from such deficiencies.
Of the various issues involved and the obvious interplay between characters which is intrinsic to any novel the most topical issues explored are terrorism and environmental degradation. We are compelled to recognize that a man’s convictions can lead him to do wrong as much as right. That is why Andrew Drake and Miroslav Kaminsky are terrorists even though their original political convictions based on Ukrainian nationalism might find a resonance with many even today. I must say in this regard that many of the insights the author has shown on the Russian-Ukrainian relationship and the force of sub nationalism threatening to blow apart the supra national state structure have proved ominously prophetic and might have indeed influenced many. Thus while we can’t necessarily sympathize with the methods of such individuals such as through political assassination and threatening environmental devastation by threatening to blow apart a super tanker, we cannot decry the hold of their beliefs. Indeed such convictions carry a certain appeal to people of all multinational states.
Similarly ecological devastation through oil spills has occurred in the subsequent period. Not fortunately due to terrorism but due to human inefficiency causing accidents. The consequences nevertheless have been devastating nonetheless.
Then of course the much discussed topic of love is also explored here. We find it is but a tool to serve political ends and that both the individuals involved in it operate within the backdrop of a much larger stage and forces which they can’t necessarily control.
Other than that some secondary aspects such as the description of some gadgets of Cold War military technology might interest some. Though you could probably get a better of idea of such technology by reading Tom Clancy’s books.
It’s not just the politics that attracts us to ‘ The Devil’s Alternative’ nor the fact that lives are at stake whatever option is chosen but that it makes us realize that Francis Fukuyama’s belief that history has ended is a fallacy. In fact the flow of history threatens to engulf us today once again. A defining moment has been reached as it was in 1989. For isn’t it said that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it?