A CASE OF EXPLODING MANGOES
By Mohammed Hanif
Alfred A. Knopf, 323 pages, $24
Back in 1998, The New York Times Magazine ran a profile of George W. Bush that began with an account of how W. and his mother resolved their debate over whether non-Christians were admitted to heaven: They called Billy Graham, who affirmed W.’s belief that according to the New Testament only Christians were allowed, with the caveat that, even so, one should never presume to "play God." This was not, as you might imagine, an attempt by the liberal Times to expose the candidate as a religious fanatic whom it would be insane to elect as president. The gist was that Mr. Bush’s genuine religiosity was what made him so appealing. Sure, he was a man who seriously entertained the notion that many of the citizens he hoped to lead were literally going to hell—but at least he was, in that year of total inquisition, sincere.
It’s perhaps too soon for a satirical novel that capitalizes on the foibles of the Bush administration, but Mohammed Hanif, head of the BBC’s Urdu service, has given us the next best thing. A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a comic novel starring General Zia ul-Haq, the Pakistani dictator killed in a mysterious 1988 plane crash that also claimed the life of the American ambassador, Arnold Raphel. The cause of the accident is still unknown, but, as you’d expect, conspiracy theorists have rushed into the breach. In Mangoes, Mr. Hanif imagines a conspiracy of his own as revealed by would-be presidential assassin Ali Shigri, vengeful son of an old regime colonel murdered by Zia’s henchmen.
There are many reasons to read this excellent novel, and one for which it should be celebrated: Mr. Hanif has found in Zia a veritable Homer Simpson of theocratic zealotry, lovably hilarious even as he denies clemency to a blind woman who’s about to be stoned to death—for the crime of having been gang-raped. If this seems impossible (or inappropriate), consider the Three-Stooges rhythm of events set off when the Times editorial page reacts by calling Zia a "barbaric, wily dictator, our government’s fundamentalist friend who is relentlessly marching his country back in time": The General calls on his information minister for background on the man atop the masthead. The addled information minister for whom the name Arthur Sulzberger rings no bell gets Pakistani intelligence on the case. When they come up empty, it’s all up to Pakistan’s New York press attaché:
"The press attaché called up a friendly Pakistani cab driver who, he knew, read every word in every paper and always alerted him to any stories about Pakistan.
"‘Sulzberger,’ the cabdriver shouted into his cab phone, jumping a Manhattan traffic light. ‘Sulzberger … that Jew.’
"The information travelled from his cab to the Pakistani consulate in New York, reached the Information Ministry in Islamabad over a secure teleprinter, and five minutes before his deadline the information minister received a note marked ‘Classified.’
"The owner of the New York Times was a Jew.
"General Zia heard it with a sense of relief. He knew in his guts when he was right."
The inevitable comparison here is to Dr. Strangelove, and just as the Kubrick film crystallized the absurdities of nuclear escalation into an archetypal cast of idiots-who-run-the-world, Mangoes provides the necessary update. Mr. Hanif’s Zia is neither a technocrat like Herman Kahn nor a cleric like the Ayatollah Khomeini, but something scarily in between: a pious fool whose megalomania is hidden even from himself by a cloak of folksy humility.
MR. HANIF’S GENERAL ZIA is closely modeled on his real-life counterpart, who in 1978 deposed the avowedly pro-democratic president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (father of Benazir) on the specious ground that Pakistan was in danger of collapsing into civil war. "By Jingo," Zia told foreign correspondents in the wake of the coup, "you will see elections held in October." What followed instead, by Jingo, were 11 years of brutal dictatorship punctuated by Bhutto’s execution on trumped-up charges in 1979.
Zia’s eventual support for anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan led Ronald Reagan to praise Pakistan as "the last bastion of the free world." Human rights organizations like Pakistan’s Political Prisoners Release and Relief Committee had other ideas, describing the torture of 150 political prisoners as "rang[ing] from solitary confinement to sustained beatings, water ducking, introducing chilies in the rectum, electric shocks, deprivation of sleep for long periods, burning the body with cigarettes, beating of the genitals and threats to relatives and so on." But no one denied Zia’s personal charm: According to Soviet president Andrei Gromyko, when Zia took Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov’s hand in 1982 and assured him that Pakistan would not interfere with the Soviet Union’s plans for Afghanistan, no one doubted him for a minute.
Finally, no send-up of the foreign supporters of Afghanistan’s mujahideen would be complete without a cameo by the Evil One. Mr. Hanif manages it with flair: A bored Saudi "in the construction business" referred to only as OBL wafts through an American ambassador’s party for funders of the resistance: "[OBL] skulked for a few minutes, trying to catch [the Pakistani intelligence chief’s] eye. To OBL’s horror, [the chief] saw him and showed no signs of recognition, but the local CIA chief followed [his] gaze, moved rightwards, making space for him in the circle, and said, ‘Nice suit, OBL.’"
Damian Da Costa in on the staff of The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.