Mohammed Hanif: A Case of Exploding Mangoes

Though it’s only the fifth I’ve read so far, the most historical of the longlisted titles, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), also turned out to be the most entertaining. The title is less quirky and, to me, more compelling knowing the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the subject of this fiesty book. Zia was President of Pakistan from the time he took the job from Zulfikar Bhutto (whom he had executed despite pulling off a “bloodless revolution”) until his own mysterious death in 1988 in a plane crash along with eight of his Generals (some of whom were probably plotting other assassination attempts of Zia) and American Ambassador Arnold Raphel:

Third World dictators are always blowing up in strange circumstances, but if the brightest star in the U.S. diplomatic service (and that’s what will be said about Arnold Raphel at the funeral service in Arlington Cemetery) goes down with eight Pakistani generals, somebody will be expected to kick ass.

Like the assassination of JFK, this death (which may not have been anything more than an accident) has spawned many conspiracy theories. Here is something they know: not long before the plane took off a crate of mangoes was loaded. Shortly after take-off the plane started dipping and then rising — you guessed it: phugoid, an obvious sign (apparently — I’m no expert) that there is no one flying the plane. It eventually crashed. Did the mangoes do it?

The book is divided into two principal narratives: (1) a third-person narrative of General Zia’s growing paranoia (quite justified, since assassination attempts galore are coming and going everyday) and (2) a first-person narrative from Ali Shigri, a disgruntled member of the Silent Drill team, son of a dead General, and one of Zia’s would-be assassins. The book begins with Shigri addressing the reader: he was the only one who got on board the plan that day and walked away safely. Then we are sent back into the past for most of the rest of the book, going back and forth from General Zia to Shigri, until all culminates in a pleasing final chapter.

Hanif has done an excellent job evoking an interesting character in his version of General Zia, the “smiling dictator.” At first Zia self-assured — even preparing his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, expected because of how he’s kept the Communists out of Afghanistan — lately he’s become a man “marinating in his own paranoia.” This latest onset of fear was brought on by a particular verse in the Quran, a book that has taken on a new role in Zia’s life:

After eleven years, he was feeling a creeping habit setting in. For he had started consulting the holy book as if it were not the word of God, but his daily horoscope on the back page of the Pakistan Times.

Hanif skillfully shows Zia transforming from a confident man who has the power to take the word “god” out of parlance to a man who begins to cloister himself in his room.

In the name of God, God was exiled from the land and replaced by the one and only Allah, who, General Zia convinced himself, spoke only through him. But today, eleven years later, Allah was sending him signs that all pointed to a place so dark, so final, that General Zia wished he could muster up some doubts about the Book.

The tone Hanif adopts is also entertaining in its sardonic satire. In a particularly poignant and pleasing and disturbing part, Zia discusses the pending execution of a blind woman for fornication — she was raped.

“So the woman will be required to recognise all five culprits in court?” Zia asked.

“Our law, as you know, is not set in stone; it encourages us to use our common sense. So the two men who are holding her down by her arms, maybe the woman would not be able to recognise those two and the judge can make an exception.”

“And what if she didn’t see any of the culprits? What if they were wearing masks?”

General Zia could tell the old man was suddenly angry.

“Why would a rapist wear a mask? Is he a bank robber?”

This tone is also appropriate and entertaining when Hanif employs it to look back at the activities going on in Afghanistan in the 1980s. At a Fourth of July party, the chief of the CIA goes up to a fellow named OBL:

“Nice meeting you, OBL. Good work, keep it up.”

I felt differently, however, about Hanif’s evocation of the novel’s main narrator, Ali Shigri. Where some have, appropriately, compared Shigri to Yossarian from Catch-22, I felt it was almost too much imitation; take away the familiar sardonic attitude and laziness and Shigri was basically lifeless despite his back story — he found his father hanged by his own sheets, his friend Obaid is sometimes his lover with whom he plots his assassination of Zia, he is imprisoned in the VIP cell of Lahore Prison. There was some kind of disconnect between these details and the first-person narrative for me. Where I felt General Zia came alive, especially when his chapters slowed down to give us a glimpse at his thoughts, Shigri’s chapters died, especially when slowed down. In fact, they were often tedious for me. Shigri’s plans, motives, and relationships are frequently alluded to, with bits and pieces being disclosed all the time, but without revealing it entirely until close to the end. This felt like a cheap trick since it was fairly easy to figure out what was coming and I felt the only purpose in hiding the facts was to string the reader along since all of the characters know what is going on. I found myself getting frustrated with Hanif here. Though the chapters were short, they still felt long, like a filler while we waited for Zia’s story to culminate.

In the end, though, as all of the strings came together, I was smitten by the story and its cleverness. Worth reading for the chapters on Zia alone, I also found the satirical look at the current state of the world very compelling. I honestly could have done without the Shigri narrative, even though it offers an at times amusing satirical view of the Pakistani Army.

So this book is two parts tasty and one part blah. However, the tasty parts overwhelm the blah parts which are already fading in my memory, making me like the book more and more the further I get away from reading it.

14 thoughts on “Mohammed Hanif: A Case of Exploding Mangoes

  1. Trevor,

    Admittedly it seems a weak year Booker-wise, but do you think this merited its nomination? Although overall you like the book, your criticisms are quite serious ones (artificial pacing, an unconvincing and worse uninteresting central character), I found myself wondering if this is this year’s topical entry.

    Is this a first novel do you know? If so, I wonder if later works might be more solid.

    Also, I understood the book contained some (for want of a better term) magical realist elements, in particular a talking crow and a curse. How do those fit in and do they work in the context of the broader narrative?

    Otherwise, thanks for the review, interesting as always.

  2. Stewart says:

    Admittedly it seems a weak year Booker-wise…

    It looks like it, but we can only blame the judging panel on that one as there were so many titles people on blogs and forums expected to see on the longlist that didn’t make it, like Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self, The Spare Room, and Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria.

  3. Fair point Stewart, I don’t disagree with you.

    What’s The Spare Room? I don’t know that (or Carpentaria for that matter).

  4. Max – I have to agree with Stewart first of all. Though I have enjoyed in some ways most of the books I’ve read so far, only one has been particularly strong – Netherland – and even it is getting mixed reviews from around the globe in both blogs and news magazines. A Case of Exploding Mangoes was no exception to the “entertaining but forgettable” trend. I’m hoping that as I enter the last half of the books, things will pick up and I’ll find some books that are not only entertaining but that have the capacity to remain in my mind. It doesn’t look promising, but I’ve got hope!

    Now, let’s see if I can respond to your other questions: This is Hanif’s debut novel, though he has been a correspondent for The Washington Post and The New York Times, and he now works for the BBC. So despite this being his first novel, he’s been writing for some time. I guess throughout the book there is evidence of his experience and of his inexperience.

    As far as the talking crow and the curse (and don’t forget the vicious tapeworms!) go, I found them welcome elements in the narrative because they exaggerated the “conspiracy” elements to include even the supernatural – everyone wanted Zia dead! I especially liked it in contrast to Zia’s belief that he was the voice of God. These fantastical passages took up only a small amount of space, so they didn’t overwhelm the more realistic elements, and there are plenty of other plots for killing Zia at work, so they didn’t become all important to the ultimate demise of Zia. Still, these elements were, to me, only further entertainment. They didn’t help the novel transcend it’s basic premise – General Zia, how he made people mad, his death, and how it might have happened. The more weighty matters about politics of the region, Afghanistan and Russia, and Afghanistan and OBL were dealt with only sardonically and tangentially.

  5. I haven’t read Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, but I know that Stewart has as revie of it on his blog (here). All reviews I’ve seen of it picked it as an early Booker winner – including the review of a former Booker judge and shortlister, Susan Hill (here). I haven’t read a single negative review of it, yet.

  6. Ah, I do know The Spare Room, I’m tired today and somehow it hadn’t connected.

    Thanks for the info on Hanif, particularly the detail about the fantastic elements which sound like they work rather well. I’ve no aversion to the inclusion of such elements, like anything they can be done well or badly and it sounds like here they’re done well.

    I may read this one, not sure yet, but your review has made me more inclined to than I was previously.

  7. Isabel says:

    I like the title!

    Did you find the book too realistic, since a journalist wrote it.

  8. Isabel, I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “realistic” but let me see if I can respond. As I read the book I actually looked to see if a more journalistic/chronicling style would appear. I don’t think it did. The passages on Zia, where I think it would have been most likely that Hanif would sound like a journalist, were often subtle, playful, and descriptive without sounding like a listing of facts or an analysis of the facts. There are many great metaphors that run throughout the book, and Hanif is good enough to his readers that he doesn’t spell them all out.

    As far as sounding too realistic at all, the book succeeds in taking a real event and making it into what could be considered a farse.

    I guess that, despite its flaws, the book succeeds in sounding – no – in being a playful work of art. Though that doesn’t make me consider it any more worthy of the Booker.

  9. Sherry says:

    I’m curious, knowing you’ve been disappointed with other major book awards and that you had similar feelings with the booker last year (and apparently this year) do you feel the committee is trying to appease a larger crowd rather than literary greatness?

  10. For many book awards, and for last year’s Booker, I think my disappointment is more due to different taste than to the fact that a book that was completely unworthy of a literary award won. I’m usually just angry that the book I liked the most didn’t win (or get recognized, which is really sad!).

    This year’s longlist has been a different experience for me, though. The committee is definitely proud of itself for getting a broad field of entries – the geography, the style, the author’s experience – and I think that in attempting to do that they’ve given some high quality books short shrift while honoring other books just to create some variety even though little else recommends the book. But the Booker always seems to attempt to give us a broad range of books from a variety of authors. We just hope that does not include such a wide variety of actual quality!

    With the inclusion of Child 44 I wonder if there were discussions among the judges that went something like this: “We need a book that will appeal to the masses. We need a bestseller to get the Booker out there!” At least there’s something noble in that misguided cause, even if they’re actually alienating many of us who have always loved the Booker. Worse than that, though, (and this is a possibility this year) would be if someone like me were on the committee who felt a beloved book was jilted in past years, but who felt that that jilted book that should have won the Booker was Harry Potter, because that’s quality.

    At least there’s still hope, though. Several of these books will be forgotten when the shortlist come out.

Leave a Reply