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.