A Case of Exploding Mangoes

One of the funniest passages in Mohammed Hanif’s acidly satirical novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, is the official statement of a Pakistani cadet facing interrogation by his superiors. “When I asked whether I was under detention laughed and made a joke about the cell mattress having too many holes. The joke cannot be reproduced in this report. 2nd OIC arrived half an hour later and informed me that I was under close arrest… if I didn’t tell him the truth he’d hand me over to Inter Services Intelligence and they would hang me by my testicles?2nd OIC made a joke about two marines and a bar of soap in a Fort Bragg bathroom. I didn’t think I was supposed to laugh and I didn’t.”

The soldier is Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, the country is Pakistan in the 1980s. The deadpan tone, however, could be that of Evelyn Waugh, Jaroslav Hasek (The Good Soldier Swejk), Spike Milligan, Joseph Heller, or any fine satirist of the military. Hanif certainly belongs in such exalted company, and his young officer, Ali Shigri, is instantly recognizable as the seemingly innocent yet secretly cunning underling who can subvert any regime.

Ali tells lies, of course, but only when he must, and never to us. Through his keen eyes, we perceive the absurd world of the Pakistani armed forces orbiting the larger absurd world of the late General Zia ul-Haq’s appalling dictatorship. “The guilty commit the crime, the innocent are punished. That’s the world we live in,” Ali explains as the novel opens with the mysterious 1988 plane crash that killed General Zia, his head of Inter Services Intelligence and the US ambassador among others. Observing the doomed party as it boards Pak One, Ali knows that he is “saluting a bunch of dead men. But if you are in uniform, you salute. That’s all there is to it.”

How does Ali know? Is the crash the work of Pakistani Intelligence? Of the CIA? And what part could mangoes possibly play? The answers to these and other questions shimmer mirage-like throughout the cleverly constructed novel as it winds backwards — and often sideways — from the assassination to its origins, churning up flotsam such as spymaster William Casey, Osama bin Laden, American “advisers” and Afghani mujahideen along the way.

“The ambassador had reasons to be inclusive,” Hanif writes of the US embassy’s Fourth of July party in Islamabad at which even Osama bin Laden appears. “ozens of American agencies ran their own little jihads against the Soviets along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. There were those avenging Vietnam and there were those doing God’s work?.” In this anarchic and deadly playground, General Zia may ogle the breasts of Texan socialite and jihad-sponsor Joanne Herring while an American drill sergeant on loan to Ali Shigri’s squad can dream up his own little coup.

Hanif wisely shrinks this larger context — the Soviet/ Afghanistan/ Pakistan/ US imbroglio of the 1980s — concentrating instead on Ali’s drama and that of the increasingly paranoid General Zia. The dictator’s skewed reality is brilliantly conveyed. At Zia’s fortress, for example, as dawn approaches, “The commandos on the night shift were flicking back the safety catches on the Kalashnikovs?. a team of gardeners was being body-searched?. General Zia’s personal batman was pinning seven identical sets of medals to seven different uniforms.” Despite all this, the general can be panicked by an ominous verse from the Qaran and is hardly reassured when his bodyguard, an aerial stuntman, tells him, “Life is in Allah’s hands, but I pack my own parachute.”

This vain and jittery Zia is a wonderful creation, and Hanif surrounds him with boldly sketched thugs and flunkies. (Guarding Zia, “Brigadier TM navigated the crowd effortlessly, his elbows working like the oars of a skilled rower as if the milling crowd was nothing but dead water in a still lake.”) It is Ali, however, who demands not only our attention but also our sympathy as the novel’s heart and its conscience. Sardonic, cocky, tough but occasionally terrified, he is the son of a venerated general who committed suicide to become, as Ali puts it, “a legend hanging from a ceiling fan.” Like a hardboiled Hamlet, this brooding son cannot rid himself of his father and, more urgently, of the suspicion that his “suicide” was murder. General Shigri’s death, after all, occurred just after he had retrieved millions of US dollars from a dead Pakistani agent in Afghanistan.

Avenging his father’s murder may be Ali’s obsession, but in the meantime his heart belongs to a fellow cadet, sweet-natured Obaid-ul-Ilah, who is partial to the poems of Rilke and a dab of St. Laurent’s “Poison” on the wrists. This whimsical character might well have derailed or at least diluted Hanif’s potent satire (remember Breakfast on Pluto, Patrick McCabe’s lame attempt to subvert Irish paramilitary myth with cross-dressing camp?). But Obaid is the perfect innocent to have wandering through such a murky plot; the kind of innocent, in fact, who is tougher than any veteran, as Ali discovers to his horror when he is invited to sip tea with sadistic Major Kiyani in the Palace gardens. Here shackled enemies of the state are paraded. “The prisoners circle the marble fountain outside the Palace of Mirrors, their shaved heads bobbing up and down behind the manicured hedges covered in purple bougainvillea,” Ali notes. “They look like betrayed promises; broken and then put together from memory, obscure names crossed out of habeas corpus petitions, forgotten faces that will never make it to Amnesty International’s hall of fame.” Among the ruined group Ali suddenly recognizes?well, never mind.

That shock is one of many exquisitely timed jolts in a novel that succeeds by teasing rather than telling. There is nothing coy, however, about Hanif’s satisfying plot or his portrait of a world he clearly knows intimately and describes with tactile immediacy. In the US ambassador’s residence, the beers chill “in the morgue-size fridge.” The day after General Zia’s coup, the conference room of General Headquarters, sprayed with rose-scented air freshener, smells “like a freshly sealed coffin.” In Hanif’s hands, even the exploding mangoes are plausible.