Thursday, July 03, 2008

Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes

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.


  1. I was wondering how this book escaped your attention and you promptly posted this review. The book seems to be attracting reviews everywhere. How do you rate the author compared to Mohsin Hamid ? I read that Mohammed Hanif is head of BBC Urdu service.

  2. Krishnan: oh, I'm sure there are many equally good (but lower-profile) books that escape my attention every week - one simply doesn't have the time to read and review too much. Difficult to compare with Mohsin Hamid - Hanif is a less experienced novelist and it shows in places, but otherwise there's no real frame of reference to compare the two. They're both witty and lucid though.

  3. Hanif's novel is simply brilliant..and fearless. Which is not something you can say for Mohsin Hamid, who tends to take himself far too seriously. The only problem i see is that many western reviewers (and presumably readers) will regard big chunks as surreal imaginings when they are the absolute literal unvarnished and fantastic truth! Zia really did shut himself up in army house for almost two months. He really did have massive crying jags whenever he visited mecca or medina and so on...

  4. Hi Jai,

    Liked the review though I didn't read the book. Now I will!


  5. I went through ur review and iam a book lover so i think i might go pick up the book

    BPO work from home

  6. Finally - I have managed to read this one. Read your review and have been trying to get me paws on a copy ever since
    Good book for a first time novel. The only gripe I have (and a quick search on the interweb shows me I'm not alone) is - What's with Hanif's women? Its as if they are an alien race to him - he's almost afraid to deal with them. none of them are really human. There are 4 in total I think - the begum, Zainab, the journalist & the ambassador's wife. I felt the ambassador's wife was the closest thing to human there was.
    But overall much enjoyable :)

  7. I loved this book in spite all the flaws.. I had a great time reading it.. The review brought back some hilarious moments from the book...

    Is Llosa's book also funny?
    Could u please provide a tiny list of books which have great humour, political or otherwise?


  8. 'Baby O believes life is a series of sweet coincidences. Like the poetry he reads, where random sentiments and metaphors walk hand in hand into the sunset while cause and consequence die a slow death on the pavement, like newborn bastard twins.'

    - From the book.