Mohammed Hanif’s debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes had already started reminding me of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of The Goat before I saw Hanif's reference to that work in his Acknowledgements page. Not only are both books novelized treatments of the final days and the assassination of a real-life dictator (the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo in the Llosa book, Pakistan’s Zia ul Haq in Hanif’s), they follow a similar structure – converging narratives that alternate between the activities of the dictator and those of his would-be killers. In A Case of Exploding Mangoes the former narrative is in the third person, while the latter is in the voice of Ali Shigri, a young junior officer whose reasons for wanting to kill Zia we gradually discover.
Ali’s account – which, in its irreverence and blithe disregard for the supposed dignity of the Army, resembles Catch 22 in places – shows us the absurd randomness that can govern military life. But the most engaging sections of this book are the ones that deal with Zia – his growing paranoia about his security, his insistence on reading meaning into recurring verses from the Quran, his childlike dependence on his inner circle (any of whom might prove untrustworthy). This long-deceased despot is a soft target for an author writing a historical fiction: it’s easy to make him a figure of ridicule, to use him to lampoon the deep-rooted insecurities of those who have too much power. Accordingly, Hanif places Zia at the centre of some episodes that cry out to be turned into lowbrow comedy: these include domestic squabbles with the First Lady; a rectal examination; a scene where he sneaks out in disguise one night to experience Pakistan through a commoner’s eyes, and ends up being forced by a policeman to chant imprecations against himself; and an ostentatious public-relations display of charity towards widows.
Thankfully Hanif resists the temptation to go overboard with these scenes, keeping the humour droll and low-key for the most part. But what I thought interesting is that in the very process of mocking Zia, Hanif also, in a sense, humanises him. For example, the Zia-in-disguise episode is very funny, but there is also something poignant about the dictator’s desperate need for attention (from his wife, and even from the man who lends him a bicycle) and his speculation – as he rides the empty streets – that he might be ruling a ghost country where nobody other than his bureaucrats and bodyguards lives. The tragicomic narrative makes Zia more accessible to us; he becomes a little more than the remote dictator mercilessly ruling over people’s lives, especially since this book deals with a phase of his life where he is more the persecuted than the tyrant. This is not to say that Zia becomes a sympathetic figure in any meaningful sense, but there is at least some ambiguity in our response to him: besides, it’s difficult to unqualifiedly fear or loathe a man once you’ve seen him in a doctor’s office with his pants around his knees, worrying about worms eating away at his innards, or anxious about the possibility of assassins digging a tunnel beneath his room.
Incidentally, The Feast of the Goat has a third narrative strand that allows the reader to stand back a little from the events of 1961 (when Trujillo was killed): it involves a middle-aged woman returning to her country, still scarred by memories of childhood innocence lost to the old satyr, and it’s easy enough to see this character as playing a symbolic role in Llosa’s book. A Case of Exploding Mangoes doesn’t have an exact equivalent for this third strand, but it does spend some time in the company of a blind woman, Zainub, who has been sentenced to death for adultery under Zia’s regime (she was raped and is unable to supply the proof that would fulfill the callous requirements of the law-books – the mandatory four witnesses, etc). At one point late in the book, Zainub screams a curse against Zia, a curse that transmits itself to the ears of an itinerant crow and eventually finds bizarre fulfillment. I thought this was the weakest, most forced section of the book, but again here one can see the symbolic function of the character. (Could Zainub be a stand-in for a country that’s crying out for liberation? Or is Pakistan merely indifferent to its endless procession of dictators, one supplanting another?)
I liked A Case of Exploding Mangoes overall, despite minor reservations about the elements of magic realism involving the blind woman, the crow and ripe mangoes, and the persistent feeling that Ali Shigri could have been a better-developed character. Otherwise, it’s a sharp and playful debut, and a rare example of a contemporary political satire that mostly hits the right notes.