This book has mouldered at the #1 spot on my to-read list for four years. It exited in that unhappy limbo of not being available from the library yet not being exciting enough to make me want to buy it. Since moving to England, I’ve started trying to work my way through the oldest books on my list, so I gave in and bought this cheaply. It’s hard to remember why I wanted to read it in the first place—I think I saw it at the bookstore, thought it was interesting, but tried to exercise some self-control and not buy it.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes takes place during a period of time about which I have little knowledge: the late half of the twentieth century. Actually, it’s set a year before my birth. I enjoy reading historical fiction from this period, precisely because I like learning more about the events that preceded me. Mohammed Hanif weaves two parallel narratives. Ali Shigri is the son of a famous, now deceased, officer in the Pakistan Army, and he has a plan to kill the President, General Zia. The second half of the story follows Zia himself, with brief interludes that expose the perspectives of the First Lady and Zia’s right- and left-hand men. Everything builds towards a final, climactic chapter in which Zia boards a booby-trapped plane, gets poisoned, and suffers from a tapeworm eating his internal organs. Yeah. It’s intense.
This book took me longer to read than it should have. It took me longer to appreciate than I would have liked. Trouble is, Hanif takes a while to show us what’s so fascinating about these characters. At first glance, Ali is a self-entitled, somewhat cocky young man who thinks he has it all figured out. At first glance, Zia is a slightly crazy military dictator with pretensions of piety. But rather than being humourous, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is mediocre at first.
Thankfully, it doesn’t stay mediocre. As the story develops, Ali and Zia’s stories become more fascinating—Zia’s in particular. I found myself yearning to learn what crazy decision Zia would make next. I was less enthralled with Ali’s arc, but I still wanted to find out what would happen to him, and how he ended up nearly on the same plane as General Zia.
In both stories, the principal themes are ones of isolation and meditation upon corruption. Pakistan, barely 40 years into its existence, groans beneath the military bureaucracy driving the country forward. Ali is trapped within a system just as oppressive as the Soviet government against which Pakistan fights. Zia, despite being the leader of that system, is trapped by it as well. At one point he attempts to go among his people in disguise, and his sojourn is an epic fail. He barely makes it out of the gates of his compound before running into trouble.
In Ali’s case, he is isolated by his role as a cadet in Pakistan’s army. He is disconnected from his past as a peasant growing up in the hills, something reminded to him by fellow prisoner the Secretary-General. Since following his father’s footsteps, Ali has become the sort of person who shouts at “strength 5”, practises silent drills, and salutes on command. The Secretary-General accuses him of “selling out” and collaborating. Ali denies this vociferously, and to some extent I’d side with him—he is planning to kill General Zia, after all. Nevertheless, there’s a definite sense that he has lived outside the sphere of reality too long, firmly ensconced in the denial of the military.
Similarly, Zia is in the ineviable position of being so powerful that no one wants to tell him the truth. Everyone feeds him the information they think will make him happy. His intelligence service and propaganda puppets spread paranoid conspiracy theories whenever they feel the need to discredit the latest attacks against him. I also love how Hanif portrays the corrupt and complicated relationship between the United States and Pakistan, particularly when it comes to the CIA’s involvement in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Hanif’s approach to the ending of the story—and therefore its beginning as well—mirrors this sense of uncertainty, this inability to distinguish between realities and fictions because of poor information. The book begins by asking how Zia actually died. His plane exploded, yes, but was that the cause? Perhaps it was something else—poison, or a tapeworm, or a bomb planted by the CIA? Hanif admirably demonstrates how even events that history seems to have recorded a certain way have wiggle room for conspiracies, alternatives, and wild speculation. He does it all in jest, however, avoiding any overtones of wild-eyed conspiracy theorizing.
Overall, I can safely say I enjoyed A Case of Exploding Mangoes, but that reading it after leaving it to languish for four years probably contributed to a mild case of anticlimactic ennui. It’s just not remarkable enough to live up to any expectations that lingered in my mind. I’m not sorry I read it, though, and depending on your tastes, this might suit you even better than it did me.