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
The first strand of the novel tells of the fate of Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri of the
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.