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A Case of Exploding Mangoes Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 20, 2008
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Amazon Best of the Month, May 2008: On August 17, 1988, Pak One, the airplane carrying Pakistani dictator General Zia and several top generals, crashed, killing all on board --and despite continued investigation, a smoking gun--mechanical or conspiratorial--has yet to be found. Mohammed Hanif's outrageous debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, tracks at least two (and as many as a half-dozen) assassination vectors to their convergence in the plane crash, incorporating elements as diverse as venom-tipped sabers, poison gas, the curses of a scorned First Lady, and a crow impaired by an overindulgence of ripe mangoes. The book has been aptly compared to Catch-22 for its hilarious (though not quite as madcap) skewering of the Pakistani military and intelligence infrastructure, but it also can trace its lineage to Don DeLillo, doing for Pakistan what Libra did for JFK conspiracy theory, and Kafka's The Trial, with its paranoid-but-true take on pathological bureaucracy. Recent events pushing Pakistan into the worst kind of headlines make A Case of Exploding Mangoes a timely and entertaining read, and when a mysterious bearded man called "OBL" makes an appearance at a Fourth of July party for U.S. military brass, we're coolly reminded of the fickleness of opportunistic policy in unpredictable lands. --Jon Foro
Mohammed Hanif on his experience in the Pakistan Air Force Academy
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Pakistan's ongoing political turmoil adds a piquant edge to this fact-based farce spun from the mysterious 1988 plane crash that killed General Zia, the dictator who toppled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, father of recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto. Two parallel assassination plots converge in Hanif's darkly comic debut: Air Force Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, sure that his renowned military father's alleged suicide was actually a murder, hopes to kill Zia, who he holds responsible. Meanwhile, disgruntled Zia underlings scheme to release poison gas into the ventilation system of the general's plane. Supporting characters include Bannon, a hash-smoking CIA officer posing as an American drill instructor; Obaid, Shigri's Rilke-reading, perfume-wearing barracks pal, whose friendship sometimes segues into sex; and, in a foreboding cameo, a lanky man with a flowing beard, identified as OBL, who is among the guests at a Felliniesque party at the American ambassador's residence. The Pakistan-born author served in his nation's air force for several years, which adds daffy verisimilitude to his depiction of military foibles that recalls the satirical wallop of Catch 22, as well as some heft to the sagely absurd depiction of his homeland's history of political conspiracies and corruption. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Hanif is the first Pakistani author besides Malala Yousefzai that I've read, and she doesn't write fiction. So what besides his literary pyrotechnics and dark comic genius did I find so astonishing? Frankly, it was the relationship, explicitly beyond bromance, between the fictional Ali Shigri, the Pakistani air force pilot who is the novel's main character, and his bunkmate, Cadet Obaid, the fey misfit whom Shigri calls Baby O. It is hot! It happens to be one of the novel's main themes, although you wouldn't know this from the jacket copy or from Amazon's other reviewers.
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.
Wild plots abound amid the bloated security apparatus of the modern Pakistani state. General Zia, he of the oiled mustache and expanding midsection, is bent on the Islamization of his country, although his subordinates are mostly bent on getting and keeping power. His opposite number, the lowly Shigri, has to keep one eye open when in group prayer, the better not to make an embarrassing spiritual mistake. The action moves at dizzying speed from the lowest, most filthy dungeons to the rarified dining rooms of powerful officials.
The humor is crazy, sometimes sophomoric, always amusing. How else can one shoot barbs at fat generals, loony CIA operatives, manipulative information ministers, and greedy "widows" brought in as props for the General's charity? How else to mock a third world country with, as one character puts it, a first world security service?
By the time the mangoes actually get around to exploding, the madcap humor does begin to wear a little thin, rather like the second half of Saturday Night Live. However, the many good bits make this novel a pleasure to read.
Since Zia-ul-Haq did in fact die in a plane crash and many believed it was an assassination, the author takes this historical fact and weaves an elaborate, interesting and often very funny story around it. In fact, he uses many historical facts and figures in the book, some quite accurately. As a result, the book becomes a very interesting and often entertaining glimpse into the life of Pakistan and the Pakistani culture.
The writing is solid, the story is a good one and the facts are well researched. This book is well worth reading.