“You want freedom and they give you chicken korma,” says Ali Shigri, an officer in the Pakistani Air Force and the protagonist of A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Mohammed Hanif’s debut novel examines the circumstances surrounding the death of Pakistan’s former president, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, in a plane crash in 1988. Even at the time, many believed the crash to have been a well-orchestrated assassination—a “criminal act of sabotage,” an investigation said.
As a journalist, playwright, and former member of the Pakistani Air Force himself, Hanif is well-positioned to speculate on who did Zia in, and the book’s opening promises a conspiracy thriller. If the plot isn’t quite taut enough to deliver on that, it does give us something richer: Narrated in alternating chapters by Shigri and an omniscient narrator, Mangoes is a fascinating look into the Cold War concerns and rising Islamism that drove Pakistan’s politics in the late 1980s. Even more, it sardonically examines the workings of the Pakistani state, which comes off like a Third World Brazil imagined by Raymond Chandler.
What really drives Mangoes, however, is Hanif’s sharp writing and considerable wit. His characters are ultimately pragmatists, trying to reconcile their own desires with the strict rules of both Islam and the government, while also wondering if it isn’t too much to ask that there be something decent on the state-controlled television. Even as it dooms many of its characters to untimely deaths, the book is profoundly humanist; as one of Zia’s brigadier generals says: “Life is in Allah’s hands, but I pack my own parachute.”