Looking for a book set in Pakistan to read for the World Party Reading Challenge, I was immediately drawn to A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif, not least because of its intriguing title. (It also has a gorgeous mango golden color on the cover which was very tempting!)
The novel included elements of politics and history which are generally winners for me, as I try to delve deep into what makes a country tick, and I wanted to know more about Pakistan’s military dictator General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, one of the main ‘characters’.
There is no doubt that this is an extremely well-written and intelligent novel, with plenty of very dark humor. But, in a lot of ways, it’s not for me.
I guess the best way I could describe it is as a bit of a ‘boy’s book’. I hadn’t quite realised that so much of the novel was to be set slap bang in the middle of the Pakistani army scene, and how few female characters there would be. Our hero is Ali Shigri, a young military officer who is evidently up to something, we’re just not sure what, for most of the novel. Someone suspects something though, because he is soon whisked away by the Pakistani security forces who attempt to find out more details, and as you can imagine that’s not a particularly pleasurable experience for young Ali. (Or for the reader!!)
General Zia’s mysterious death
What we do know, is all of this will somehow climax in the death of General Zia, when his plane crashes in the desert on August 17, 1988.
We know Ali has something to do with it, but again, we’re not quite sure what…
If this all sounds a bit cloak and dagger, then that’s because it is. It may be because my reading of this novel was a bit interrupted, but I found it challenging at times to remember what I was suppose to know and what I wasn’t. The story meanders a fair bit in time, and for me, took too long to get to the bit I was really interested in – the plane crash.
It wasn’t only Zia who was killed when his plane went down – several of his top generals and the US ambassador also lost their lives. Hanif includes many of the real characters and facts known about the crash in his reconstruction in Mangoes, but he plays on the speculation about its cause in coming up with his own interpretation of the events.
I did enjoy the comic portrayal of General Zia, who suffers from (justified!) paranoia that his life is in danger, subordinates who are trying to usurp him, an uncontrollable fascination with the cleavage of an American journalist and a severe rectal itch he is embarrassed to share with his own doctor.
In real life, Zia took Pakistan’s helm after staging a military coup in 1977. He became president in 1978 and ruled largely under martial law for eleven years. While in the past I’m sure his name has passed me by, I will be far more interested in any references to him in future reading on Pakistan having read this book. While it is no doubt an unfair portrayal of the man, it is going to be hard not to imagine him bending over with his head between two flags, as a Saudi doctor gives him a rectal examination next time he’s mentioned in a newspaper article! This is the magic of novels – they give us memorable anecdotes to refer to as we go about our lives!
Click on the image below to see a video announcing the death of General Zia
Read about General Zia’s death in the New York Times
While I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ Mangoes particularly, it is a novel which will remain with me for a long time. Pakistan’s history is filled with political assassinations and military intrigue – and while this book is obviously satire, it does give us a way into that history in an unusual way.
There are very few female characters, and those there are play very small roles. For me, that always makes the reading of any novel that little less enjoyable. But to be fair to Hanif, this novel is set in a man’s world, and there is little opportunity to explore what the women were thinking at the time.
If you enjoy satire and can see the attraction in hanging around with military cadets and political prisoners you will enjoy this novel. You will enjoy the absurdity of ‘OBL’ of Laden and Co Constructions trying to make small talk at a Fourth of July BBQ hosted by the US ambassador, and of General Zia heading out on a bicycle in disguise in an attempt to find out what his people really think of him. Hanif has created many amusing, preposterous scenes that you cannot help laughing at, and there are images which will stay with you for a long time.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a truly original novel which will show you a side of Pakistan I suspect you have not seen before, and while I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this book, it is still one which is very much worth reading.
And if you are fascinated by the conspiracy theories the novel throws up, then you may enjoy Hanif’s facebook group called Who killed General Zia? where they are discussed in great detail. We also have plenty of other suggestions for books set in Pakistan if you’d like to explore the country a little further.
For our next World Party Reading Challenge adventure we are off to Russia…more on that soon!
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.