Before you read the book:
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 Rafel -
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 principle 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 backstory - 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.
After you read the book:
So far, I still like Netherland the best (so subtle and broad yet particular and poignant), but this one is in second place for me! If you’d like to discuss the way the book is resolved, I would love to engage in a discussion in the comments – just mark any spoilers.