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Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
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A-A Case of Exploding MangoesA graduate of the University of East Anglia creative writing program and a former Pakistan Air Force pilot, Mohammed Hanif examines the unexplained death of Pakistan’s former president in this debut novel.

The Story: On August 17, 1988, after attending a tank parade in the Punjabi desert, Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq boarded a plane for Islamabad. Shortly after takeoff, the plane mysteriously crashed, killing everyone on board. Around these facts, Mohammed Hanif spins an intricate web of converging conspiracies targeting the despised dictator. Among the would-be assassins is Ali Shigri, an officer-in-training at the Pakistani Air Force Academy who blames Zia for his father’s death. With the help of his American drill instructor Loot and his lover Obaid, Shigri hatches a daring plan for revenge. Meanwhile, Zia descends into a fog of paranoia and religious obsession.
Knopf. 336 pages. $24. ISBN: 0307268071

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"A Case of Exploding Mangoes belongs in a tradition that includes Catch-22, but it also calls to mind the biting comedy of Philip Roth, the magical realism of Salman Rushdie and the feverish nightmares of Kafka. But trying to compare his work to his predecessors is like trying to compare apples to, well, mangoes, because Hanif has his own story to tell, one that defies expectations at every turn." Julia Slavin

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"While Hanif’s story will draw comparisons to Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22 for its absurdist commentary on the nature of war and the military, this debut novel owes a lot to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. … Hanif manages the skullduggery well, but with so much mischief crammed onto the pages, eventually the sheer number of assassination plots feels like too much of a good thing." Barbara Liss

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Certainly, this novel doesn’t have the sustained black anger of Catch-22, a book that … seemed to have been ‘shouted onto paper.’ But there are shocking scenes in Hanif’s novel, and the shock they deliver is greater because they occur as interludes to the comedy." Robert MacFarlane

Guardian (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"It is as a serious novel of Pakistan’s difficult recent history that Mangoes doesn’t take wing, despite its ambitions. … Though its historical context is that pivotal moment when Reagan’s US brought together religion and arms to fight its Soviet foe in Afghanistan, it offers few insights into what that disastrous intervention—which included the creation of the Taliban—has meant for Pakistan and its people." Priyamvada Gopal

San Francisco Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"The reader is amused, skipping right along, until, suddenly, the emotional arc finishes and … nothing. It doesn’t affect. The reader looks up and realizes that he doesn’t feel because he’s not sure he believes in the situations, or, more problematically, in the characters themselves." Francesca Mari

Sunday Times (UK) 1 of 5 Stars
"The plot simply isn’t defined enough, the characterisation isn’t rich enough, the structure isn’t robust enough, and, above all, the satire really isn’t sharp enough to carry the reader or the book. Even the magical realism introduced at various points in the narrative feels half-hearted, while the attempts at political analysis can sometimes be embarrassingly naive." Andrew Holgate

Critical Summary

Compared to the works of Joseph Heller and Salman Rushdie, Mohammed Hanif’s debut novel is a darkly comic send-up of power and corruption. Hanif’s prose is rich with detail and insight, and he skillfully juxtaposes humor with chilling images of torture and, surprisingly enough, touching scenes between Shigri and Obaid. Critics attributed Hanif’s missteps—a lack of depth and persuasiveness—to his inexperience. This is a debut novel, and an ambitious one at that. Even the San Francisco Chronicle calls the novel "clever," and the Sunday Times admits that Hanif "show[s] undoubted promise as a writer." Mangoes may not be a perfect creation, but its satire and political commentary make it a worthwhile read.

Supplementary Reading

A-Catch 22Catch-22 | Joseph Heller (1961): Considered one of the most significant novels of the 20th century, this shocking and often hilarious examination of the horrors of war follows U.S. Army Air Force bombardier Yossarian and his friends through the final events of World War II.