Juicy explosions in the sky

On Aug. 17, 1988, a Hercules C130 – a sturdy, American-made military aircraft – unexpectedly crashed, killing then Pakistan dictator General Zia ul Haq, several of his top army generals and an American ambassador, effectively cutting short the dictator’s 11-year reign.

Mohammed Hanif’s debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes offers an inventive, wickedly anarchic explanation for the one of the subcontinent’s most enduring mysteries, provocatively blending fact and fiction, while mercilessly lampooning the military regime and constructing a lovingly caricatured late-1980s Pakistan, in all its manic contradictory glory – a country where mango farmers plot revolutions and the most powerful man in the land uses the Koran as if it were his daily horoscope.

As you’d expect from the pen of a BBC special correspondent and seasoned political journalist, A Case of Exploding Mangoes serves up biting political commentary and confidently tackles controversial subjects – military rule, Islamic law and homosexual romance – which are all the more devastating for the sardonic delivery.

Although the action takes place more than 20 years ago, the content is relevant and fresh, particularly in light of the recent international media attention to the country’s increasing problems – the seeds of which are highlighted in the novel, from the self-serving, falsely friendly alliance between the US and the Pakistan military, and the yawning ravine between those in power and the people’s needs, to indulgent religious fanaticism.

While the novel’s outcome is naturally plain from the outset, it opens on a snapshot just before the crash, as the dead men walking approach their flight to the underworld. Our narrator Junior Officer Ali Shigri points out his subtle presence in this image and implies his culpability in the historically notorious devastation that follows, before the narrative dips back several months into the past, treating the reader to a colorful twisting ride through General Zia’s final days and Ali’s murky path to contributing to his downfall, teasing with small revelations and tit-bits.

Hanif has an impeccable ear for voices, evoking the imperious, pick-and-mix English-accented tones of army officers and lazy drawls of blowsy Texan journalists with equal aplomb, and demonstrating a healthy contempt for all, particularly those in the upper echelons of the military.

Our narrator Ali is a proud, matter-of-fact young air force pilot with a knack for silent drill instruction, a soft spot for his fey roommate and a burning vendetta against whoever faked the suicide of his distant colonel father. His insolent narration (while talking to a superior he tries to “tread the elusive line between grovelling and spitting in his face”) perfectly shapes and frames the novel’s satirical narrative style and his own army-ingrained delusions (“I thought civilians loved our uniforms”) strengthens the tale’s anti-military stance.

Ali’s co-protagonist is the doomed General Zia, who is delightfully skewered and portrayed as a superstitious, paranoid and bumbling despot with a dancing, waxy moustache and gallons of self-importance. Yet, despite the high parody, Hanif also manages to summon up a measure of sympathy for the foolish dictator, such as when during an ill-advised disguised outing, an unwitting policeman humiliates and assaults him, while revealing that the general his victim claims to be is a national figure of fun.

The wide cast of supporting players is similarly richly constructed and idiosyncratic, each one with compelling inner voices. Ali’s devoted roommate Obaid, aka “Baby O”, one of the cleverest and most compassionate characters, has a brave passion for fake Poison perfume, heart-printed silk boxers and poetry. The dictator’s wife is an acerbic, disdainful First Lady, capable of reducing her bullying husband to tears, while Zia’s right-hand man, General Ahktar – “Pakistan’s second most powerful man” – is a former middleweight boxer” who could “wipe out a whole enemy unit by kissing their asses”.

The dynamic characterization particularly comes to the fore through the novel’s frequent power struggles, where little happens in terms of action, but much is fought in the characters’ internal worlds, from the marital one-upmanship between Zia and the First Lady (she cuts him down to size with withering glances, he constantly finds fault with her appearance); the erotically charged interactions between Ali and Baby O; the silent rivalry between Zia and Akhtar (“Theirs was a bond between two dogs on a glacier, each sizing up the other, trying to decide if he should wait for his comrade to die before eating him or do away with niceties and try to make a meal out of him immediately”); and lesser struggles such as the one between a diplomatic party guest and a hardened journalist (they “found each other equally dull”).

The exuberance of Hanif’s characterization and dialogue extends to rest of the novel, as he peppers the narrative with crafty turns of phrase, while also employing considerable restraint, never getting carried away with his own cleverness or losing a grip on his languorously twisting plot. And whether creating humor or pathos or both, Hanif’s words awaken all the senses

The generous helpings of dark humor are undercut with instances of intense pathos, such as unfair deaths and imprisonments; graphic torture methods and wounds; the weight of unspoken feelings between Obaid and Ali; and Ali’s paternal loss.

While Hanif’s first novel touches on many heavy subjects, it’s his attention to detail and lyrical way with the mundane (human relationships, the routine of military life) that really elevate the fruits of his labor to iconic status, both for Pakistan and on an international scale.

Both wildly fantastic and cunningly plausible, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is as tart as a lemon and as juicy as an overripe mango – 100 percent guaranteed to tantalize your literary taste buds and leave you wanting more. Let’s see what Hanif does next.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes
by Mohammed Hanif
Vintage, 304 pages

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