Book Review: A Case of Exploding Mangoes

A Case of Exploding Mangoesby Mohammed HanifKnopf, 2008The author of this mordant and extremely smart debut novel is a graduate of the Pakistan Air Force who now works as a journalist, and from that unusual background has grown a book that is as wise as it is silly, whose grimness is always offset by gallows humor, and whose plot, not inconsequentially, will have you reading compulsively to the end.That plot concerns Pakistan Air Force Junior Officer Ali Shigri’s quixotic quest to understand his father’s suicide, a quest that leads him by labyrinthine paths into the acquaintance of an eccentric cast of misfits and eventually into the orbit of General Zia-ul-Haq, a deeply ambiguous figure and the novel’s best, most Falstaffian creation.Family and the bonds of friendship therefore form large parts of the book’s matter, but the true heart of A Case of Exploding Mangoes is wry and penetrating social commentary, always delivered with exquisite care (and quite often with the Bush administration’s misdeeds hovering in the background), as in Fort Commander Major Kiyani’s unwittingly damning military double-speak:

“Let’s say you caught somebody who wasn’t really a threat to national security. We are all human; we all make mistakes. Let’s say we got someone who we thought was going to blow up the Army House. Now, if after the interrogation it turns out that no, he really wasn’t going to do it, that we were wrong, what would you do? You would let him go, obviously. But in all honesty, would you call it a mistake? No. It’s risk elimination, one less bugger to worry about.”My eyes keep glancing towards the prisoners, who are shuffling their feet and swaying like a Greek tragedy chorus that has forgotten its lines. Their shackles chime like the bells of cows returning home in the evening.

This book will engross you; it will make you sad; it will raise your frustration with the state of world affairs to a fever pitch; and all along the way, it will make you laugh. In other words, we have all heard from a new Joseph Heller, just when we need him most. Here’s hoping we hear from him again, and often.