August 26, 2008

Mohammed Hanif: A Case of Exploding Mangoes

Posted in Booker Prize 2008, Hanif Mohammed at 8:00 am by John Self

The longlisting of Mohammed Hanif’s debut novel for the 2008 Man Booker Prize could not be better timed: as I write, it is 20 years to the day since the death of Pakistan’s General Zia al-Huq, the event which is the centrepoint of the novel. The book takes a satirical look at the days approaching General Zia’s death – in a plane crash – and attempts to weave this into the story of a fictional Pakistan Army member who has a story or two of his own to tell.

Perhaps the greatest measure of my response to this book is that, as I write, a week has passed since I last wrote “as I write” two sentences ago. I have struggled to think of much to say about A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which left me more or less indifferent. Normally if I am unenthusiastic about a book, I’ll not write about it (in many cases, because I haven’t finished it). This avoids the blogger’s occupational hazard of making bricks without straw. But this damned Booker longlist thing has put paid to that.

The book is told mostly in alternating chapters: first narrated by Ali Shigri, a Pakistani army recruit who has been arrested after his friend Obaid disappeared with a military plane; and then from the last paranoid days in 1988 of General Zia, right up to “the last recorded memory of a much-photographed man”:

The middle parting of his hair glints under the sun, his unnaturally white teeth flash, his moustache does its customary little dance for the camera, but as the camera pulls out you can tell that he is not smiling. If you watch closely you can probably tell that he is in some discomfort. He is walking the walk of a constipated man.

Generally the Zia chapters are the more interesting. Hanif makes him a foolish figure, a man whose leadership of Pakistan via military coup has never quite erased the thought of himself as an unsure virgin on his wedding night, the “fumbling failure” of which “had resulted in a marriage in which his authority was never fully established.” Paranoia comes with the knowledge that what he did to the previous government could be done to him, and has as its necessary accompaniment a sense of delusion (“A country that thinks it was created by God has finally found what it deserves: a blabbering idiot who thinks he has been chosen by Allah”). This is fostered by the methods, somewhat reminiscent of contemporary British politicians, which his aide ‘TM’ uses to ensure the continuing appearance of wild popular support wherever the General goes.

The crowd with which Zia mingled comprised an all-male congregation of primary school teachers, court clerks, office peons and government bureaucrats’ domestic staff, ordered here by their bosses. Many in the crowd were soldiers in civvies bussed in from the neighbouring cantonment. With TM at his side, General Zia felt that the crowd suddenly became more disciplined. … During his six years as General Zia’s Chief of Security, not only had [TM] kept General Zia safe from all visible and invisible enemies, but also conducted him through so many milling crowds that General Zia had started to think of himself as a man of the people.

Among this character comedy and engaging satire – some of it very low but very funny – is a take on Zia’s support for the mujihadin in Afghanistan, when it was under invasion by Russia. Zia sees himself as “one of the seven men standing between the Soviet Red Army and the Free World,” and hopes to win the Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with the US, “for liberating Afghanistan.” This is both a reminder of the familiar tale of how this US-led intervention ended with the rise of the Taliban and the flourishing of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but also of how Pakistan in the new century would renew its support for US policy and attacks on the Afghan regime it had helped put in place. (Hanif could not know that – yet again as I write! what an historic week it has been – the Pakistan leader who implemented that policy would have just reached the end of the line also.)

Otherwise, A Case of Exploding Mangoes – the title comes from one of the theories of General Zia’s plane crash which the book airs – is pretty gentle going, and lacks the anger that drives great satire. The chapters narrated by Ali Shigri – who while trying to avoid torturous interrogation and find his missing friend, is also seeking to understand what drove his father to ‘suicide’ – are generally duller than the Zia chapters, and the links which bring the two stories together in the end are perfunctory and, given that we know the outcome from the start, not very surprising. Having said that, it is probably one of the more accomplished debuts on the Booker longlist. But even with this additional publicity – and it was already plenty hyped before – I wouldn’t expect A Case of Exploding Mangoes to have a shelf life much longer than a Pakistani general.

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20 Comments »

  1. So, very funny in places, but not a sufficiently biting satire overall? Two principal narrative strands, one of which is just less interesting than the other?

    This sounds like an amusing light novel, which some will probably find funnier than others, but which is unlikely to leave the reader with much by way of material to mull over after finishing it. Were it not for the subject matter, I’d almost say an aeroplane novel.

    Have you much left to go John?

  2. I looked again at Trevor’s review, a bit more favourable than yours but in the same ballpark it seemed (I had the impression he found it a bit funnier than you did, which is where I’d expect variation to appear most really).

    He also noted the Zia narrative thread I notice.

    Redheaded Ramble I note got so bored she found almost nothing to say about it, again not that different to your reaction.

    There does seem to be a bit of a consensus on this one, I suspect how much one enjoys it will be driven almost entirely by how funny one finds it.

  3. John Self said,

    I daresay another factor was the whole Booker ennui, Max. If I’d read this early in the longlist I might not have enjoyed it any more, but I probably would have found more enthusiasm for writing about it.

    Anyway as I write this I am 100 pages from the end of my last Booker title, The Northern Clemency. Four weeks to read these eleven blighters, and only one I feel thoroughly delighted to have discovered. I think I shall open a bottle of something tonight.

  4. Stewart said,

    I only lasted about a hundred pages of this and moved on to John Berger’s From A To X, of which I also only read a hundred pages (twice!) before deciding that it would be a waste of my time and sanity to continue reading this year’s Booker longlist.

    My biggest problem with A Case Of Exploding Mangoes was just sheer boredom. The style never engaged me. As for the humour, I have a problem with reading humour in books in that I rarely get it, which is probably why I tend to more serious works. Only Roddy Doyle and Edward St. Aubyn have had me laughing aloud, but that’s more to do with the dialogue than anything else.

  5. Has anyone blogged Northern Clemency yet? I don’t think I’ve seen anything save some reviews when it came out that were not wholly promising.

    I can’t say I adored Kitchen Venom exactly, it was ok, but I didn’t personally find it much more than that.

  6. Mrinal Bose said,

    So, John, is it going to be a shorter Booker short-list this year?

  7. redheadrambles said,

    Well John, I salute you in your successful completion of the longlist in only 4 weeks. Impressive. I am exhausted and have only read 4 !. My overall impression of The Case Of Exploding Mangoes mirrors yours – I was supremely unengaged with it, but I agree it is hard to know if this was partially due to my “Booker Slump”.
    I am now reading Netherland and things are looking up.
    BTW – I am interested in your take on The Lost Dog….it is the one I found the most difficult to make my mind up on.

  8. Paul said,

    I read an interview in which he says he was inspired by Mario Vargas Llosa’s ‘The Feast of the Goat’, about the events leading up to and following the assassination of the dictator Trujillo in the Domincan Republic, a novel of some brilliance which I admire very much.

  9. jem said,

    This one fell a bit flat for me. But it was kind of doomed from the start because the subject matter didn’t really appeal (but I hoped it might have ‘The Gift of Rain’ effect, but it didn’t). I actually preferred the Shigri sections as I felt more of a connection to him that to Zia. I think there was too much emphasis on being funny and clever and not enough on a gripping well written story. I have a funny feeling this one will make the shortlist though.

  10. John Self said,

    John Berger’s From A To X, of which I also only read a hundred pages (twice!)

    Ah, Stewart: what you want to do next time is read the first hundred pages then a different hundred pages. As for humour, it’s highly subjective as Max indicates, but I did find parts of Mangoes humorous, though Steve Toltz’s novel was more successfully funny.

    Max, dovegreyreader has blogged about part of the Hensher, and I believe she will be finishing the job tomorrow. For my part, I realised on seeing his backlist titles that I’ve read all Hensher’s novels but one (his first, Other Lulus). No idea why as most of them have left me indifferent, including The Northern Clemency – though it was almost worth reading the 738 pages for the brilliantly bad ending. Will post more fully on it probably next Monday.

    Mrinal, if it was up to me it would be a one- or two-book shortlist (Grant and maybe Ghosh) – in fact they did that in 1975 – but given that the judges clearly have completely different tastes from me, I couldn’t predict what they’ll shortlist. Too many clunkers (Child 44! Girl in a Blue Dress!) and not enough corkers is the problem – though there were plenty of better books out this year, in my view.

    redhead, I will aim to post my thoughts (which I too have not yet quite decided on) on The Lost Dog later this week.

    Paul, coincidence corner: at the weekend a family friend mentioned Llosa to me. I’ve never read any of him. Wasn’t Trujillo featured heavily in Diaz’s Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao though?

    Jem, you could be right about the shortlist – as I say, I’m done predicting given that the judges have been so eccentric in their longlist choices. There seems to be wide agreement about Hanif’s book, though other bloggers such as Lizzy Siddal really liked it. He seems a nice guy too – I read an interview with him on the Booker site where he says his reaction to being longlisted was, “I thought, what is the literary world coming to.” Ahum: no comment…

  11. Paul said,

    John, yes, and Diaz even references Llosa’s novel in one of the inside-narrative footnotes of ‘Oscar Wao’, when discussing General Trujillo.

    I really do recommend ‘The Feast of the Goat’. I think it is a great novel. It exemplifies what one form of the novel can do. It brings to imaginative life the psychology of a fascist, a dictator, examines the nature of unfettered power on individuals and society, provides an insight into, a re-appraisal of a moment in history in Latin American / Carribean (that I knew nothing about), to illuminate the moral squalor of dictatorship and totalitarianism, and to really examine unflinchingly the morality of assassination. It is a work of deep ethical seriousness, an examination of evil, that never feels heavy handed. It is unflinching, disturbing and dark but it is a novel of some brilliance, and I found it a compulsive read.

  12. John,

    “though it was almost worth reading the 738 pages for the brilliantly bad ending”

    I have to say, that’s a hell of an almost for a 738 page novel. I look forward to your review with interest, and possibly trepidation…

  13. KevinfromCanada said,

    Diaz’s book certainly does use Trujillo — he uses it as the foundation for his primary political theme, the diaspora of Dominicans to the northeast U.S. I think comparisions to The Feast of The Goat are fair but in some ways misleading — The Feast is a better political novel, Oscar Wao heads in a different direction. Diaz interweaves family and personal themes with his political one and that becomes the centre of what I think is a truly excellent novel. Which in no ways puts does The Goat — it heads in a different direction.

    I think comparisons of Diaz with Mangoes are quite relevant. For me, Hanif fails because nothing in this book is quite enough. The satire is okay, but hardly biting. The humour is fun, but not much. The characters don’t really come to life. The historical comment, as this review points out, is certainly important, but nothing is ever really made of it.

    From my perspective, the most critical aspect of this book is that four weeks after reading it, I only remember the last 30-40 pages. I don’t think this is a spoiler comment but it might be — unlike P. D. James or Agatha Christie, who always give us a killer, Hanif gives us four or five (I do forget the exact number), all of whom may be the real killer. A nice touch, which made reading the novel worthwhile, but not good enough to say “you should read this book.”

  14. The only thing I remember from this book – and I finished it only a couple of weeks ago – is that Zia was killed in (or during) an airplane crash, possibly because of some mangoes. Oh, and that the FBI (or was it the CIA) congratulated Osama bin Laden and told him to keep up the good work. I certainly expect more from books.

  15. KevinfromCanada said,

    Trevor: You missed the air quality issue, sword not to the eye and something else that I also don’t remember. You couldn’t have been paying attention.

  16. Wow, for not finding much to say you certainly came up with quite a lot. I am wondering if you could explain how books are chosen for the Booker lists, long or short. What criteria must be met. I cannot tell from what I have read this year and this is the first year I have read more than the winner.

    I am sorry to say I found nothing humorous in the first half of Mangoes, which is all I could take. It bored me silly. I am having the same reaction to Netherland. Can’t get beyond all the cricket.

  17. Teresa said,

    This is my first year following the Booker longlist, and the two books I’ve read so far are enjoyable enough, but not stellar. I enjoyed Mangoes well enough while I was reading it, but it’s ultimately forgettable (although I think Hanif shows potential as a writer). Child 44 is a solid enough thriller, but it doesn’t rise above being that. On the other hand, A Fraction of the Whole has been a treat through and through–as long as it doesn’t fall apart in the last couple hundred pages.

  18. [...] Asylum [...]

  19. white said,

    Exploding Mangoes sounds pretty interesting. I added to my to read list and would look at getting it sometime.

  20. sandrar said,

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.


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