Friday, 10 April 2009

A Case of Exploding Mangoes - Mohammed Hanif

Read: April 2008

When I was very young I loved a picture book by Pamela Allen called Who Sank The Boat? Set on Mr. Peffer’s Place it tells the farcical story of a group of farm animals who take a boat trip which ends in tragedy. From page one you know the boat sinks, but the mystery is in who is to blame for its unfortunate demise. One by one the animals board the boat, some gracefully, some less so, and with each new passenger, the boat sinks lower and lower in the water. But who sank the boat? “Was it the cow who almost fell in, when she titled the boat and made such a din? Was it the donkey who balanced her weight? Who yelled, ‘I’ll get in the bow before it’s too late.’ Was it the pig as fat as butter, who stepped in at the side and caused a great flutter? Was it the sheep who knew where to sit to level the boat so that she could knit? Or was it the little mouse, the last to get in, who was lightest of all? Could it be him?”

Mohammed Hanif’s debut is a lot like Who Sank The Boat? Except, instead of a sunken boat it asks the infinitely more sensible question: who crashed the plane? The plane in question being Pakistani military dictator General Zia ul Haq’s Hercules C130 which crashed on 17th August 1988. In tackling one of the great unexplained mysteries in Pakistan’s political history Hanif takes all possibilities and conspiracy theories and subjects them to the scrutiny of satire, to the analysis of the absurd. From page one we know the plane explodes, but the mystery is in who is to blame for its unfortunate demise. Was it a simple mechanical failure; or the CIA’s need to cover its financing of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan; or a blind woman’s curse carried in the body of a thirsty crow; or human error by the pilots; or jealous generals seeking power for themselves; or the fresh mangoes recently donated by the socialist All Pakistan Mango Farmers Cooperative; or our narrator, Ali Shigri, avenging his fathers untimely demise, itself a mystery shrouded in uncertainty.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes
is absurd in the very best way. Similar to Andrey Kurkov’s recent novel The President’s Last Love, it takes a slanted look at the blindness of leaders, their seclusion from society, and paranoid existence. As we follow Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri from his homosexual relationship with a fellow soldier named Obaid, through his arrest for aiding and abetting Obaid to steel a plane, to his rehabilitation and silent drill display for the President himself, we travel across Pakistan’s military interior, from secret bunkers under historical castles to unmarked buildings and unregistered cars. He is an oddly blank character, we are never quite sure where we stand with him. He is a soldier’s soldier, unquestioning and loyal, he is a gay soldier and the favourite of an American drill leader, and he is plotting the silent murder of the President of the country.

Alternating with Ali’s journey we trace the paths of the various generals, foreign dignitaries and political figures involved in the governing mess of Pakistan. General Zia is in marital trouble for his blatant ogling of an American journalist’s breasts, his security expert Brigadier TM is taking a day off from duty to take part in the National Day paratrooper display, second in command General Akhtar is about to receive an unwanted promotion, and the American ambassador’s wife is hosting a bizarre Independence Day garden party attended by a mysterious lanky man with a flowing beard and appearing under the name OBL. The characters are warmly drawn, lovable and laughable in equal measure, and all the while we are building up to the grand finale: the explosion of 8 crates of mangoes, along with at least three of the nine ‘men standing between the world and communism’ somewhere over the Punjabi region of Pakistan.

Mohammed Hanif manages to combine Islamic theology, realpolitik history and ancient curse into a plot which flicks from character to character, possibility to possibility, each treated in a light-hearted playful manner. Homosexuality in the military; a blind woman condemned to death by stoning for fornication after being raped by a group of men for three days; a general who determines policy by reading the Quran like a daily horoscope; A Case of Exploding Mangoes is thoroughly controversial, and the humour is all the better for it. With its focus solely on military personnel in a military dictatorship we step inside the military regime with its disdain for civilians, its paranoia and its arrogance. And as the climax builds, we look on with horror, revulsion and excitement for the fireworks to come.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes
is a very good debut novel, and Mohammed Hanif is a name to look out for in future. With its appealingly bright cover and catchy title it is a novel which is sure to attract lots of attention. And shortly after that, loud guffaws of laughter.

7.5 out of 10

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