Monday, June 30, 2008

The Plane Truth


After coming out of the shadows of magic realism, it looks like we’ve returned to the penumbra of those talented Latin American writers. Dark political satires and fables are the order of the day: there was Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist; there was Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger; and now, there’s Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

This one owes as much to Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold as it does to Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat -- something acknowledged in the book by having one character read the Marquez novel, and many characters feast on the aforesaid animal.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes tells of the time before and immediately after 17 August 1988, the day General Zia-ul-haq perished in a plane crash along with senior generals and the US ambassador to Pakistan, among others. The truth behind that incident has never been plausibly revealed, and it is this ambiguity that Hanif takes as the subject of his debut.

The first strand of the novel tells of the fate of Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri of the Pakistan Airforce Academy, who lands in hot water because of what he’s concealing – or not – when it comes to the disappearance of a fellow cadet. The other strand presents us with the last days in the life of General Zia who, in Hanif’s hands, emerges as a vain, blundering, occasionally cuckolded, fearful and Koran-consulting despot -- a man who, among other things, is troubled by an infestation of tapeworms in his gut.

It emerges that Ali Shigri may well have his own reasons to do away with the Chief Martial Law Administrator, but this isn’t the only threat to the General’s life. There are also conniving generals and curse-carrying crows, apart from the fleshy fruit of the title. Thus we shift from scene to scene, from air force training camp to the Presidential palace to prisons under Lahore Fort to the American embassy.

Much of this is great fun to read, even though you occasionally wince at Hanif’s barbed satire. As with the protagonist of Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Shigri’s voice is likeable and effectively maintained throughout: it is cynical, scoffing and baffled by turn. Quite a few aspects of life under military rule come under Hanif’s scanner and he treats each one sardonically, occasionally reminding one of Heller’s Catch 22. Few targets are spared: a brigadier thinks that Jinnah looks like “a tortured eighteenth-century chemist on the verge of a new discovery” and a bearded character named “OBL” turns up to hobnob with Pakistani and American top brass at a Fourth of July party.

However, Hanif’s penchant for overarching satire means that the work falters somewhat as a novel. The identifying and skewering of targets takes precedence over sustenance of pace and depth of character. (Much the same can be said of that other recent satirical work, Adiga’s The White Tiger.)

Be that as it may, the prime merit of A Case of Exploding Mangoes could well be to remind us once more that one of the functions of artists and their work, from the time of Juvenal, is to mock the petty pomposities of those in power. On that score, this is a novel to relish.


Mampi said...

Read your article in the Hindustan times May 18. Do you have that article on this blog? I was thinking of linking it.
It is brilliantly written, so true and relates to all the voracious readers.

Unknown said...

Thanks. Yes, it's on the blog, post dated May 18th itself.

Mampi said...

Ok, I was thinking of doing a post myself a couple of days back But I think you've said it all that I wanted to say, and to think that I read THAT article today. So, I guess I will just end up with linking your May 18th post. And I hope you wont mind if I linked u on my "Blogs I Read" list.