Warrior by Olivier Lafont
Reviewed by Asha Richards
Olivier Lafont’s debut novel, Warrior, is a frenetic, adrenalin-charged fantasy caper. Its hero, Saamu, is an Indian demi-god and must save the world from an imminent apocalypse. The adventure begins in a humble shack on Marine Drive in Mumbai but soon encompasses not just the length and breadth of India but the entire globe and worlds betwixt and beyond.
Lafont is a Frenchman who lives in Mumbai and whose varied career includes modeling, acting in Bollywood films—most famously in a small role in the 2009 blockbuster, 3 Idiots directed by Raj Kumar Hirani and starring Aamir Khan, one of the Khan trinity of actors that rules the Indian screen—and writing. Influenced, possibly, by the panoramic remit of the Bollywood screen, Lafont lays out a vast canvas for his adventure and draws from multiple and eclectic sources for his plot— mainly the Indian epic, Mahabharata, with a little from the Ramayana too, but also crucial moments from Indian history, as well as the Hollywood Indiana Jones films.
Saamu, based largely on Arjun from the Mahabharata, lives a quiet life as a humble cobbler plying his trade in Mumbai, when he is suddenly summoned by supernatural forces to take the lead and save the world from annihilation. Reluctantly, he gathers together a rag-tag bunch of seven unlikely warriors, reminiscent of the 1960’s John Sturges film, The Magnificent Seven, which itself was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, (1954). Saamu’s fellow travelers include his girlfriend, Maya; his half-brother, Ara (also a demi-god with arachnid characteristics); a Muslim scholar of Hindu scriptures, and a bizarre red-haired character called Laalbaal, possibly in a bid to recall the alleged superhuman qualities of the 12th century Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa.
Together, they set out in search of a supposed fifth Veda, Kaal Veda, which has been lost to mankind and which contains the secret to deflecting the apocalypse. The quest takes the group into the nether world of serpents, where the rediscovered Veda directs them to a “Pure Glass” that resides in an outer galaxy, peopled by metallic creatures engaged in their own internecine laser war. Here, Lafont offers an interesting deviation from the war in the Mahabharata with the Shield Lord (a sci-fi version of Lord Krishna) siding with the Kauravas rather than the Pandavas.
Lafont inventively chops up key moments from world history and rearranges them into an ahistorical order before mining them for backstories for the two half-brothers. Thus we leap from the Mauryan empire to pre-Taliban Afghanistan to the American War of Independence, from British Raj colonialists sporting Hugo Boss glasses, to the Marathas to the Ming dynasty in China. In fact, Saamu has even had, at some point in his centuries-old existence, a King Ashoka-type of battlefield conversion from brutal violence to peace.
Unraveling like a testosterone-charged, spectacular action film, there is much exuberance and dynamism in Lafont’s picaresque dash from one world to another, from one time zone to another, and there are occasional moments of excitement in the action, which would warm the cockles of a young adult reader’s heart. However, the book seems mostly overwritten, and, although fluent, the protracted descriptions of the different worlds and their panoramic vistas rob the book of its pace and urgency. Although the fight scenes are full of verve and frenetic action, the excess of well-known allusions and references robs the plot of originality, creating a dull sense of déjà vu.
Consequently, despite the innumerable allowances that a fantasy genre with flying pterodactyls affords, the book fails to engage. A surfeit of eclectic references from history, mythology, and popular culture seem to overload a threadbare plot. And, despite the hostility between the two half-brothers, Saamu and Ara, where the latter is modeled on the tragic Karna from the Mahabharata, the characters fail to sustain the reader’s interest. In fact, the most touching moment of the book comes, intriguingly, from a talking stallion’s stoic and poignant acceptance of his imminent death on the battlefield.
Another problem, perhaps, with Lafont’s novel is that there appears to be, for a very long duration, no real antagonist who directly challenges Saamu’s strength. For most of the time, the enemy remains an enigma, and until his true identity is revealed towards the very end, the reader is expected to delight in the unchallenged physical and sexual prowess of Saamu on the battlefield and in bed. The motley army that accompanies Saamu does very little and, other than a few timely interpretations of arcane Sanskrit texts by Fazal, the Muslim scholar, one wonders why the group was deemed necessary at all.
Finally, for a 21st-century action drama, the women in the book seem curiously old-fashioned and uninteresting. They are either young or delectable like Maya, Ramala, and the Chinese, Lixue, or hugely obese, monstrous freaks with pendulous breasts like Moti. Needless to say, neither the young and beautiful nor the fat and ugly women have any worthwhile psychological depth, and they serve merely to extol Saamu’s virility in his deflowering of the Indian and Chinese virgins. This then is a boys’ book of adventure where burgeoning virility and masculinity are critical. At the same time, however, whether a contemporary teenager with a short attention span will be able to plough through the discursive text is a moot point.
Asha Richards trained at the National School of Drama in New Delhi and holds a doctorate in theater studies from the Sorbonne in Paris. She was film critic for the Indian Express newspaper in Mumbai, and later worked at the British Board of Film Classification in London. As a part-time lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), she pioneered their course on Indian cinema. She is the author of Pop Culture India! Media, Arts, and Lifestyle (ABC-CLIO, 2006).