36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
This debut novel by Mohammed Hanif is witty, humorous and entertaining. What is astonishing about this novel is that many of its characters are real; a few of its important characters were alive until a decade ago, but have since departed. Also, many of the incidents and events narrated in this novel actually happened, and so those are based on fact; but the author has chosen to interpret these actions and events with humor, and painted them with unabashed sarcasm, and colored them with prodigious wit, and thereby he has transformed the grave incidents into very funny vignettes.
At the center of the novel is the death of Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who was president of Pakistan from 1978 to 1988. On August 17, 1988, a C-130 Hercules plane carrying Zia ul-Haq crashes. On board were several Pakistani army generals, Arnold Raphel, the US Ambassador to Pakistan and the head of the US military aid mission to Pakistan, and all of them perish. They were returning to Islamabad from Punjab, where they had been to witness a tank demonstration. A few crates of ripe mangoes were loaded onto the plane before take off. Did one of the crates contain a canister of poison gas? The author wonders.
The main narrator of the novel is Ali Shigri, an Air Force Junior Officer, in the Pakistani Military. Ali Shigri's father, Col. Quili Shigri, has committed suicide, but Ali is convinced that his father did not commit suicide, and that he was actually murdered by General Zia. And so quite determined to kill the general, Ali hatches an elaborate plan to carry it.
In a very funny vignette, a lanky, bearded young man named OBL from Saudi Arabia attends a Fourth of July party given by Arnold Raphel in Islamabad. (He was invited to the party by the Americans!) OBL works for "Laden and Co. Constructions." Among the invited guests is the local C.I.A. chief, who tells Osama, "Nice meeting you, OBL. Good work, keep it up."
There is also an astonishing vignette about Zainab, a blind woman who is convicted of the crime of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning, even though the adultery occurred when she was gang-raped. (I have read a similar incident in another Islamic country. There was international protest when the woman who was raped was sentenced to death by stoning.)
Mohammed Hanif's prose is spare but lucid. Even though it lacks the grandeur and splendor of Yann Martel's or Salman Rushdie's prose, it is spontaneous and highly readable:
"Anybody who breaks down at the sheer volume of this should stay in his little village and tend his father's goats or should study biology and become a doctor, and then they can have all the bloody peace and quiet they want. Because as a soldier, noise is the first thing you learn to defend yourself against, and as an officer, noise is the first weapon of attack you learn to use."
Because the author worked for the Pakistani Air Force for several years, his descriptions of army life and how Pakistan's army officers behave sound realistic and authentic.
This magnificent novel is born of an enormously talented writer. I understand that he is already working on his second novel. Reading "A Case of Exploding Mangoes" was a great joy.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 2008
This whirlwind of a book follows Junior Officer Ali Shigri of the Pakistan Air Force as he entangles himself in the complicated world of national politics. A host of colorful characters all seem to be working against each other, seeking revenge, glory, power, and sometimes even love. Throughout the mayhem, Mohammed Hanif sprinkles a generous amount of satire. Military medals are "fruit salad" on a uniform shirt and the Quran becomes a fortune-telling tool, for example. Although the action unfolds far from the U.S., many of this book's themes will resonate with U.S. readers.
This is a political thriller told on a very personal level. I connected with many of the characters, and this connection is what kept me quickly turning the pages even though I don't typically enjoy political books. Despite the complicated, interwoven plot lines and the many characters, this is not a messy, sprawling book but rather a tightly controlled performance. I had no difficulty following the action, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Highly recommended.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2009
While it might help, you don't really need to know about Pakistan's history to really enjoy this book. Mohammed Hanif has the ability to make you care about varied characters, even the purported villains.
Ali Shigri is the main character, but the book is written from the points of view of multiple characters, which removes it from a narrow tale about revenge, into a much broader story encompassing as many concerns as there are characters.
I found that I was eager to get to each chapter to see what new layer would be revealed about the story. Additionally, Hanif's sardonic humor actually had me laughing out loud.
I am generally not fond of political novels, but if more were as well written as this, I'd probably change my mind.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Before I read this book, I'd never even heard of Zia ul-Haq, the president of Pakistan who was killed in the crash of a C-130 airplane, along with the American ambassador Arnold Raphel and others. Hanif's wonderful book presents some theories (albeit some needed to be taken tongue-in-cheek) as to what may have actually caused the death of the president. They range from tapeworms to a crow; deadly gas, snake venom given to the main character by a laundry worker named Starchy, a blind woman in prison for being sexually assaulted or even a case of mangoes put on the plane for all to enjoy. Here's the thing: after I finished this novel, I looked up Zia ul-Haq on various sources on the internet and found that yes indeed, there was a real belief that the CIA had spiked mangoes that went on board the plane with VX gas to eliminate Zia.
And now, it seems, according to an article of August, 2008, that lots of interest has been sparked in exactly what did cause the president's death.
Hanif, a former air force officer for Pakistan, has got a winner of a book here. Some of it is actually funny, and you may find yourself laughing out loud in some parts. At the very beginning of the book we find out that the president dies in an airplane crash; the rest of the book looks back at part of his tenure in office and the people surrounding him, as well as people who see him as an enemy who not only needs ousting, but needs to be dead. Set during the time of the Soviet-Afghan conflict, there's even a visit from a shady character who goes by the initials of OBL, the head of Laden Construction Company during the course of a somewhat garish barbeque party given by the Americans for a fourth of July.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a wonderful book and it will definitely keep you reading. The characters are true to life (even the shadier ones), the prose is amazing and the story itself is fantastic. The fact that it has a basis in fact adds another element to the reader's enjoyment.
Definitely recommended, and recommended highly. And this one didn't make it to the Booker shortlist???
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 30, 2009
I kept being reminded of Catch-22 as I read this wonderful satiric novel of political conspiracy and life in the military. Author Hanif's achievement is his ability to tell a story grounded in the history of another culture that's as easy to appreciate as Heller's classic anti-war novel. For me, the laughs kept coming no matter what, even when the humor was so dark I didn't want to believe it could be based on what really happens in this cockeyed world.
Others here have covered the plot nicely. The book begins with a fast forward to its ending - the crash of General Zia's plane and the deaths of all aboard. Then Hanif interweaves a number of entertainingly far-fetched plots all contributing to not one but several conspiracies to assassinate Zia - all of them converging on that fateful flight. What's exhilarating is the freedom Hanif takes in his rendering of the real-life characters, all of whom seen as more-or-less hapless clowns in a grand-scale collision of hubris, ambitions, ignorance, paranoia, and professional jealousies. And you realize that in a media-dominated age, where most of what we know about public figures is PR, spin, hype, and rumor, a novelist is free to invent his own characterizations of them.
You can fault the book for its length, its occasional wandering off-course, and its lack of historical accuracy, but it is no more than what it sets out to be, a wild ride that attempts to reflect the absurdity of human behavior when what's at stake are positions of power and the vast sums of money that power attracts to itself.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Twenty years ago, a Pakistani military plane crashed under very shady circumstances, killing everyone on board, including the Generalissimo who had been running the county ever since the coup that deposed Zulfikar Bhutto. For most Westerners, this is one of those distant footnotes to history, barely remembered, if at all. However, one of the other passengers on that plane was a friend of my parents, making the episode one of those mysteries that's always stuck with me through the years. It's also one of those events that's acquired a rather robust mythology and body of conspiracy theories around it -- making it great fodder for a first novel.
The story starts several weeks before the crash, and introduces us to the soon-to-be-dead General Zia and his close associates, as well as to a pair of Pakistani Air Force cadets (one of whom is the main narrator), the U.S. Ambassador, a CIA agent, and a whole host of lesser characters (including, in a very brief but historically plausible cameo, Osama Bin Laden). Despite the relatively large cast of characters, almost all spring to life with remarkable vitality. From the barracks laundryman "Uncle Starchy," to an imprisoned enemy of the state (the head of the All Pakistan Street Cleaners Union), to General Zia's paratrooper bodyguard, and many others. This is no small achievement, and a vitally important one for a plot that brings together so many disparate motives and agendas.
Indeed, the plot is too complicated to fully describe, but basically General Zia has grown increasingly paranoid, and rightfully so, as a number of different people want him dead. To mention who or how or why would be to spoil the fun, suffice to say that the story focuses on two particularly devious plots, while other possibilities materialize out of carefully calibrated subplots. So, in a sense, this is a thriller -- even though the results are already known. However, it's also a black comedy in which the author has drawn deeply on his own experience as a Pakistani Air Force cadet in order to create a rich satire of the Pakistani military. Furthermore, the author's years as a journalist makes him particularly well-suited to aim his satire at the men of state, their machinations, and those good old days when the U.S. was funding the Afghan resistance to the Soviets. While a lot of this history is so tragic and inept you have to laugh, Hanif has the writing skills to create some moments of real comedy and fine wordplay as well.
The last several years has seen a resurgence of interest in this era, in books such as Steve Coll's excellent Ghost Wars or George Crile's Charley Wilson's War. Coll also wrote a much earlier book called On the Grand Trunk Road, based on his years as the South Asia correspondent for the Washington Post, which has a 25 page chapter devoted to his investigation of the crash. It's nice to be able to get some perspective from the Pakistani side, albeit in fictional form.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Hanif's _A Case of Exploding Mangoes_ is part historical fiction, part mystery. Set in Pakistan in the late 1980s (just as the Soviets are about to leave Afghanistan, the 11th year of General Zia's dictatorship), Hanif weaves together several story lines:Ali Shigri, a young Pakistani cadet and pilot-in-training; General Zia, military dictator of Pakistan; Zainab, a blind woman convicted of "immorality" for being raped and who is sentenced to death; and a number of minor (but significant) characters interrelated with these story lines, including political prisoners of Gen. Zia and intelligence officers in the ISI (Pakistan's leading intelligence agency) and CIA.
The mystery itself is rooted in what exactly happened when Gen. Zia's aircraft suspiciously crashed. Hanif posits that it was a confluence of events, alluded to in the title, itself a double-entendre: a case as in "an investigation" and a case as in "a container of." The double-entendre is typical of Hanif's style - clever, dry and rife with overlapping meanings and crossing stories. I found the story a bit slow to take off - the connection between characters and their roles and relationship to one another took some time to straighten out. I am glad I stuck with the story, as the early investment paid off once the interconnectedness of characters to events became clear.
Readers with a passing familiarity with Paksitan (and its recent history) will be much more "in on the jokes" Hanif presents here: the Lahore Fort, Zia's twitching moustache, the political jokes about Zia. Those reading the book "cold" will still find much to enjoy here, as Hanif does an admirable job of tying together characters and their different stories. I wish some definitive closure was given to Zainab's story line, however, and an event between young Shigri at Lahore Fortress could have been more clearly shown. An entertaining read.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Wickedly funny, acerbic wit, well narrated plot, reasonably fast pacing, though it does drag somewhat in the middle. The mention of a mysterious character named OBL will appeal to the conspiratorial bent of many in the west, while the foibles of those in power will be more than familiar to people in the sub-continent.
The book is a work of fiction, written by a Pakistani author, about real characters. By way of a short historical background, General Zia Ul Haq was dictator and President of Pakistan from 1977 to his death in a plane crash (or explosion) in 1988. He took over power by overthrowing the democratically elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whom he then got arrested, tried on a murder charge, and hanged. Zia also introduced the Shariat in Pakistan, set the Pakistani army down the path of religious indoctrination, actively encouraged and financed not-so-nice activities in India, helped the US effort in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, and backed Pakistan's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons technology.
This book is a sort of a reimagining, a fictional take on what could have been - based on the popular opinion that Zia did not die in an accident, but was done in by one of his own men in the army, or the CIA, or the ISI, or some other unknown unknowns, who could not sit around waiting for the good General to be done in by someone else.
Before morning payers on 15 June 1988, General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq's index finger hesitated on verse 21:87 while reading the Quran, and he spent the rest of his short life dreaming about the innards of a whale. The verse also triggered a security alert that confined General Zia to his official residence, the Army house. Two months and two days later, he left the Army House and was killed in an aeroplane crash.
There are two plots that proceed in parallel, one that follows Zia and his daily grind, and one that is in the past, narrated in the first tense by Ali Shigri, a soon-to-be commissioned officer and Air Force pilot, who along with his friend Obaid plots manically to do in the General. Shigri also strives to find out what happened to his father, Colonel Shigri, who had allegedly committed suicide by hanging himself, and to avenge his death.
As the chapters proceed, the two plots converge - to the day that Zia is killed in a plane crash.
Thrown into the plot are dozens of cases of mangoes, a famished crow who doubles up as a messenger carrying a gory curse uttered, nay, spat out by a blind woman condemned to be stoned to death and who blames Zia for her plight, Zia's wife who is just about fed up with her oh-so-pious husband, Major Kiyani of the ISI, the US Ambassador to Pakistan, and one anonymous esteemed guest in the construction business and who also happens to be involved with Afghanistan at the time and is introduced in the book only by his initials - OBL - surprise surprise, an imprisoned secretary general of the sweeper's union, and what have you.
On General Zia's left, his former spymaster and the head of Inter Services Intelligence, General Akhtar, seems weighed down by half a dozen medals on his chest and drags his feet as if he is the only man in the group who knows that they shouldn't be boarding this plane.
The 2nd OIC is exhausted from his business with my mother and I can see an appeal to my better sense on its way. I clench my stomach muscles against the impending "cream of the nation" speech. I don't want to throw up. The cell is small and I have no idea how long I am going to be here.
"You are the cream of our nation," he says, shaking his head.
No sacred cows - not Pakistan, its army, its generals, the ISI, the mujahideen, religion, India, heck - even the revered Mangeshkar sisters, Lata and Asha, are not spared.
Look at the arrangement of fruit salad on my tormentor's chest, above the left pocket of his uniform shirt, and you can read his whole biography. A faded paratrooper's badge is the only thing that he had to leave his barracks to earn. The medals in the first row just came and pinned themselves to his chest. He got them because he was there. The Fortieth Independence Day medal. The Squadron Anniversary medal. Today-I-did-not-jerk-off medal.
Though the Mangeshkar sisters are not given anywhere as harsh a treatment as is reserved for General Zia Ul Haq. Zia's piety, or his belief in his piety, or his paranoia, which as it turns out was not misplaced, or his belief in the love his countrymen have for him, which however turns out was indeed misplaced, as he and his bottom find out one evening. Hanif takes some decidedly wicked pleasure in writing about Zia - a dash of sympathy mixed with a pound of caustic caricature; you will not recall Zia in the same way, ever.
All the things that break an ablution had been eliminated from his daily routine - garlic, lentils, women who didn't cover their heads properly. But since he had confined himself to the Army House, this itch had started.
It is hard to put it down once you start reading it. The language is a bit R-rated at times, the humour is always, always wicked, dark. Sharply observant, withering in its wit.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2008
Absolutely hilarious book that had me laughing out loud. A very fast and very fun read. Highly recommended.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 28, 2010
This book is truly amazing. I couldn't put it down, once I cracked the book open I was hooked. He is a very descriptive writer that painted a vivid picture. I felt as if I was there and I could hear, taste, smell, and feel everything that was going on. Loved this book and definatly will re-read again!