Wednesday, February 24, 2010

mohammed hanif: a case of exploding mangoes

#17 A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Mohammed Hanif

What broke my heart about this book? Was it the plot, that starts out in awesome break-neck, whip-lash, split-screen fashion and then starts to freeze up in the odd uncomfortable position near the end? Was it the occasional burst of my least favourite type of writing in this world, magical realism, spurting now and then across a page of perfectly adequate piece of prose? Was it the niggling inconsistency in tying up loose ends?

Hell no. All that I can handle. But I can't handle how one day, I am in the middle of a nice life with a nice job and an issue of Tehelka to read on the train, when suddenly I start to care about Under Officer Ali Shigri and his Oedipal obsession with his dead father and the military dictator who may have had Daddy killed. When I say 'suddenly,' I mean somewhere halfway down the first page. Books. They can really kill you sometimes.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes runs along two parallel tracks. In the last days of his life, General Zia-ul-Haq, who wants to be remembered as a good Muslim and a great ruler, is suffering from increasing paranoia. His readings of the Quran are warning him of terrible tragedy ahead. In this great country of Pakistan that he has rescued from a bunch of whiskey-swilling cravat-wearing sybarites through his military coup, people are conspiring to murder him. Somewhere. Possibly everywhere. In the other corner, we have a sturm und drang show from Ali Shigri at the Air Force academy. Ali is young, intense and perpetually bitter. His scramble down the rabbit hole begins when he reaches out to wake up his roommate and best friend Obaid one morning and finds that 'Baby O' isn't there.

General Zia is trying frantically to shape his political legacy into the Cold-War-ending, Nobel Peace Prize-winning piece of history he knows it is. Ali is trying to survive the battle with a military establishment punishing him for a crime that he hasn't committed - and which Obaid has disappeared trying to protect him from. So what is Ali doing in the TV footage of General Zia's final moments, captured on camera just before Zia ascends the plane that will blow up in mid-air four minutes off the ground, killing him and everyone on board? This is what the elaborate plot of Mangoes is about.

Hanif pulls out all the stops as a storyteller. In this compact 350-page novel he constructs a full-masala plot, throws in a dozen sideshows (not all of which tie back in to the main narrative one hundred percent neatly), remakes real-life characters in an angry, ugly comedy, and creates a handful of complex, layered original characters who somehow manage to hit all the piteously familiar sweet spots of fiction (a dude with a dead father, come on) and make them all work excellently. Some of it teeters on the edge of is outright melodrama - there's an extended sequence in prison that is caught somewhere between Dumas and Bollywood - and it is absolutely absorbing if you like that kind of thing. I do. I laughed and I cried through the book. The women on the train thought I was mad because I kept putting my face into it and guffawing. Or shutting it and going 'Oh, Obaid.'

Hanif's style is less miniatures in ivory than hammer-on-nail, which I like; it keeps the book rumbling on in a dry, busy voice. It's not self-consciously literary (the magical realism is easily forgivable) and manages to evoke the perfectly accurate but ineffably awkward rhythms of subcontinental English very well indeed. The Zia sections are great satire; Hanif's Zia is a more raw, rough-cut version of the dictators in Louis de Bernieres' novels. But I like Ali best. Zia's character may loom large over the novel, but Ali's arc, smaller in scope (he's not ruling Pakistan, after all), is inscribed much wider.


Ali is a boy trying desperately hard to be funny - and he succeeds. He brings with him a half-deadpan, half-slapstick approach to the awfulness of military life, a deep, delicate friendship with Obaid, and the memories of Colonel Shigri hanging from the ceiling fan by his own bedsheet. All these preoccupations are potentially deeply annoying, but Ali is not one of life's bullshitters. Ali lives -- and I can't tell you whether that's a spoiler, or a character review. It was this, my friends, which broke my heart.

1 comment:

  1. I want this book from you!Yeah!I want your book!
    The piece which you read!