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Sunday, March 20, 2016

What I'm reading (#3)

Last week I finished a book with the unlikely title of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammed Hanif.  Hanif's novel follows in the fine tradition of military satire exemplified most famously by Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Richard Hooker's M*A*S*H, both of which simultaneously highlighted and ridiculed the military establishment, American imperialism, and the politicians that control it, while making sure not to soft-pedal the horrors of war.

Hanif's book is set in 1988, during the last days of Zia ul-Haq, dictator of Pakistan.  General Zia came to power by overthrowing President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who he had tried on trumped-up murder and conspiracy charges for which he was ultimately hanged (protesting his innocence even as the noose was put around his neck).  Because of this and other actions, Zia had his share of enemies, many among his own advisors, and in his last year he became paranoid, suspicious of everyone, and was convinced that he was destined to be assassinated.

In which, of course, he was correct.  On August 17, 1988, Zia and several of his advisors (and the American ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel) were killed when Zia's plane crashed in Bahawalpur shortly after takeoff, under mysterious circumstances.

But who was responsible?

In Hanif's novel, the answer is... damn near everyone.  The story revolves around a young army officer, Ali Shigri, who hates Zia more than anyone, because Zia had Shigri's father (a colonel in the army and high-level adviser) murdered, then made it look like a suicide.  Ali Shigri is determined to take his revenge, he's just waiting until the opportune moment -- which, he believes, will come when his Silent Drill Team perform in front of the General before his return to Islamabad.

The problem is, Ali is going to have to get in line behind all of the other people who want to be the first to do Zia in themselves.

Along the way, we encounter the dope-addled American army officer Corporal Bannon, Ali's perfume-scented playboy roommate Obaid, the army's conspiring and most likely insane laundry operator Uncle Starchy, a woman who is on death row for the crime of being raped, the Secretary General of the Street Sweepers' Union, and a crow who likes to eat fermented mangoes.

And it only gets weirder from then.

Hanif deftly weaves a story through (real) historical events that is by turns hilarious, appalling, exciting, and absurd.  Anyone who is a fan of military fiction, or is interested in Middle East affairs, or just likes a good read, should pick up a copy of this novel.  You'll love it -- and end by saying, "Man, the world is weird place."

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