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.
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.
on August 12, 2015
Mohammed Hanif's unusual op-ed piece in the The New York Times of July 26, 2015, titled "Of Dogs, Faith and Islam," inspired me to read "A Case of Exploding Mangoes," his first novel. There are no dogs in it, alas -- a crow makes a late, important appearance-- but despite the canine absence the book is brilliant, complex, and astonishing. Did I end up believing any of the conspiracy theories about the plane crash that ended the life of General Zia, his top loyalists, and an American diplomat? No, and I don't think Hanif believes any of the conspiracy theories either.
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.
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.
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.
Not only does Mohammed Hanif write exceptionally well, but he's also a great storyteller with a great sense of humor.
Although this is a novel, it's based around events leading up to the mysterious plane-related death of Pakistan's 6th president, General Muhammed Zia-al-Huq, in August of 1988, back when the Russians were in Afghanistan. Not being up on too much of mid-to-late 20th-century Middle-East historical figures, I read half the book thinking General Zia was just a fictional president concocted by the author, then realized that several of the characters were actually real. Even Osama bin Laden figures into the story, appearing--but not speaking--at a 4th of July party on a Pakistani military base, wandering about trying to get noticed. He's never named specifically, just gives his initials at the door, followed with "bin Laden Construction & Co."
Also figuring into the story are the real-life General Akhtar Abdur Rahman and the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphael, both of whom are in the plane with General Zia. Through most of the book, Akhtar is the head of Intelligence and plays a prominent role in the story. By the way, I'm not ruining the story by telling you about the deaths of Zia, Akhtar and Raphael because Hanif covers that in the first page or two of the novel, which begins from the perspective of Ali Shigri, a young Pakistani Air Force pilot and head of the silent drill team.
While the story tends to revolve around Shigri, Hanif spends a lot of time inside the minds of Zia and Akhtar, among others, and that's when Hanif is funniest, relaying a given individuals opinion about someone or something. One example is General Zia's relationship with his wife, a very fat woman who never has sex with him, all because of his meek behavior on their wedding night. Beforehand, his uncle gave him advice to "kill the cat on the first night," which basically meant to go into the bridal bed and show the woman who's boss. But Zia botched it with a milquetoasty approach and was shut out ever since. Hanif's use of humor reminds us that most Pakistanis are much like anyone else, with problems, jealousies, insecurities and relationship issues. And that not everyone is religious. By the way, Hanif is himself from Pakistan.
Great story, well told.
on June 10, 2016
Suspect it was inspired by Catch-22, matched its humor, character development almost as good. Same for plot.Best novel I've read in a long time. I liked the introduction I got to Pakistani society and culture.
This is a delightful book, funny and dark at the same time. Since the perpetrators of the explosion that brought down the plane of the real General Zia ul-Haq in 1988 have never been conclusively identified, Hanif imagines how it might have happened. Most of the novel alternates between the voice of a young Army cadet named Ali Shigri and the voice of the security-obsessed General himself.
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.
on April 28, 2014
If they could re-print this book, and perhaps condense the first half into maybe ten, or twenty percent as much content, then this would be a riveting book.
The end half is an excellent read, with good twists, interesting characterization and a pace that makes it fun to read. I, however, spent a good month with only the first third or so of this book read, constantly putting it down and pickup up other, more interesting reads. Eventually I got over the boring hump that is the first half and greatly enjoyed the book.
I would recommend this nonetheless - it is an interesting look at Pakistan and, as a somewhat Westerner, a nice insight into a different culture.
Just remember to skim the first half.
on December 13, 2014
Brilliant satire, brilliantly written, taking as its precept the actual case of the plane crash that killed former Pakistani President Zia Ul-Hak and American Ambassador Arnold Raphel and takes it ad absurdum but yet with the niggling thought in your mind that any of the scenarios might have been possible and plausible. A fabulous read!