I know where I was when JFK was assassinated and when Diana sped into a tunnel in that doomed Mercedes-Benz. I can also tell you where I was on 17.08.1988. Hanau General Hospital, labour ward. You bet I wasn’t watching the news! So it came to pass that the death of President Zia of Pakistan in an airplane crash did not enter my consciousness until reading Hanif’s debut novel.
The reason for the crash remains an unsolved mystery which A Case of Exploding Mangoes attempts to solve. Known facts can be found here and they are seamlessly incorporated into the novel. Hanif’s imagination comes to the fore as he integrates a couple of conspiracy theories; the first, a threat from his own generals (he who lives by political assassination, will die in the same way); the second, from a disaffected individual. These two conspiracies give the novel its structure as they are delivered in alternating chapters with a wicked, and sometimes outrageous, satirical eye.
It’s satire that kept a wry smile on my face throughout. So the religious zealotry of the violent man who islamicized Pakistan is presented as a tactic for survival. After a disastrous wedding night “the fumbling failure” of which “had resulted in a marriage in which his authority was never fully established”, he decides that he will secure his political position by insisting on a recitation of the Quran at his first cabinet meeting. And while that is incredibly grows increasingly dysfunctional until he becomes “fattened, chubby-cheeked and marinating in his own paranoia.”
But “just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you” and Zia’s enemies breed as his presidency claims more victims. Their stories form the second narrative seam. The narrator is junior officer and would-be assassin Ali Shigri, a man bearing a grudge for his father’s death. With obvious echoes of Catch-22 his story depicts the absurdity of miltary life in a camp where he is hatching a plot of his own. Gradually his tale becomes darker as he is captured, imprisoned in Pakistan’s infamous Lahore Fort, a place where foul tortures are inflicted on those less privileged than himself. Not that he is treated humanly, but there are those who are treated far worse – including a blind woman, sentenced to death by stoning, for adultery committed while she was being raped. Cleverly Hanif controls the violence – much of it is off page. This control culminating in the most shocking scene of all, a theological discussion showing how the interpretation of Sharia law prevents the woman from proving her innocence. She must identify her attackers. But how can she when she has been blind from birth? Absurdity which brings us once more to Catch-22.
There are further literary antecedents. Conspiracy plots and assassinations – The Day of The Jackal? I was constantly reminded of two other recent novels dealing with totalitarian regimes: Karen Connelly’s brilliant The Lizard Cage and the not so brilliant Book of Words by Jenny Erpenbeck. Satire not a feature in either and that is what distinguishes Hanif’s work from both and makes it an original read.
Certainly some of Zia’s enemies are original. They’re not all human. Indeed besides the crow and the mango depicted on the frontcover, there is a virulent tapeworm. Disgusting? No. An oddly appropriate metaphor.
Anyway, back to that mystery. Who killed Zia? The generals, the officer, the blind woman, the crow, the mango, or the tapeworm? Hanif serves a veritable soup of conspiracy. A tasty one too. Rather like those mangoes in the title.