Friday, 20 March 2009

The Best of Boyology

Review of Mohammed Hanif 2008: A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Jonathan Cape, London.

I’m doing some comparative exercises here on post 9/11 South Asian literature, and suddenly remembered The Mango Book. A delicious cover I had seen in the autumn, by someone named Mohammed Hanif. In the cover, an evil-looking crow was peeling a mango, with some nuclear ballistics and paisley motifs in the background.

Now, it’s been a bit tiring to encounter novels with obvious orientalist/sensualist titles, usually referring to tigers, mangoes, jasmine, saffron or whatever might trigger the optimal Western reader’s imagination. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won the Man Booker prize last year. Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes was only longlisted. Of course, both novel titles are extremely ironic and weaved in complex metaphorical layers of meaning. Both authors play with the obvious, looking for language that would distance us from usual imageries of lush, pittoresque, tradition-bound South Asia (and its clashes with Western-imported modernity). One powerful way is to lay the most obvious clichés on the table and see what there is to be done to them.

If The White Tiger is a malestream novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is doubly so. Before embarking on a career as a journalist, Hanif served in the Pakistani Air Forces, and the novel is set in his youth’s military context. The novel is about ultramasculine militarism and the segregated gender order of the Zia rule, a time when soldiers used the images of Readers’ Digest as pornographic stimulation. There are only two remarkable female characters of note in the novel, The First Lady and a blind prisoner Zainab, who was sentenced for fornication as she could not identify the gang that raped her. The rest is pure Boyology, with predictable homoerotic dimensions.

I wrote my doctoral thesis on Pakistani women’s autobiographies, and alongside kept on reading their men’s memoirs. Most of them are military memoirs, or memoirs from prison. I have collected boyish writing in khaki, and from the outset it looks like a fetish. An embarrassing one. I have always wondered what to do with the silent knowledge gained from them.

When Sara Suleri published her second memoir, Boys Will Be Boys (2003), dedicated to the memory of her father ( a civilian, a journalist), I felt the khaki shelfful came somehow of use. Now, finding a story of exploding mangoes, I feel all those pompous, self-congratulatory texts pave way for closer reading (“You can blame our men for anything, but you can’t blame them for being imaginative”, p.4). I probably wouldn’t have read the Mango Book with such ease without that background knowledge. The novel demands more cultural and historical knowledge from the reader, than, for instance Adiga’s The White Tiger, or another recent Pakistani bestseller, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. It is not clearly written with Western audiences in mind, but rather it serves mixed groups of people, who already know something about Pakistan. One cannot get all the jokes without having some kind of living memory of 1980s Pakistan.

Hanif knows how to play with Pakistani obsessions with conspiracy theories and horoscopes. The notion of consultation in politics – consultation from the Koran, astrologists, Saudi doctors or whatever higher powers – is a delicious sub-theme. The whole nation’s problematics is being mapped out during a rectal examination, in which a Saudi prince’s “dick doctor” finds General Zia having tapeworms feasting on his sugary diet. But this is done in a good-humoured, almost forgiving way: through a carnivalistic parody of “the best of” Zia repertoire Hanif humanizes the villain. The future is ever-present in parties on the American Embassy lawn in Islamabad: Zia is a pitiable puppet of US diplomats and Saudi millionaires, out of which one, the heir of a constructor empire, is smugly called OBL.

This debut novel has been compared with Mario Vargas Llosa, Philip Roth, Wole Soyinka, John le Carré, Haruki Murakami, and unsurprisingly, Salman Rushdie’s Shame (1983), an early parody of Zia rule. I dare claim that The Mango Book is more successful as a political portrait than Shame, and wonder whether it is even possible to write about political emergencies while they are happening. With the 20 years’ hindsight it is possible to play with time, introduce hilarious after-wisdoms and anachronistic pieces, the truth value of which is not important at all. In Shame, Rushdie tries too hard to produce a literary masterpiece, introducing layers after layers of pedantic word-play to the extent that the reader feels like choking. Hanif, on the other hand, does not seem to try anything, but is immersed in the pleasures of telling of the story.

In other words, there is a clear turning back from postmodern/postcolonial forms of narration. Hanif too retorts to magic realism through the symbolism of the crow and the mangoes, but he doesn’t overburden the reader with it. I am reminded of a genre “resistance literature”, an early 1980s notion before postcolonial theorizing truly broke through in the academia (cf. Barbara Harlow 1987). This is a genre that has been quietly living during military regimes all over the world, but has never received the same hyped value as “all things postcolonial”.

It is quite interesting to compare The Mango Book, for instance, with Mohsin Hamid’s prose on Pakistan: it is relatively free of any kind of need of “writing back” to Britain or later superpowers, whereas Mohsin Hamid takes the post-colonial revenge to the extremes in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The structure of feeling is different here: Pakistan with its then 130 million population, despite its role as a Cold War mediator, seems to be living a life of its own, developing its own sub-cultures (eg. the feminist movement and politicized trade unionism) despite military dictatorship and Islamist-inspired censorship. Hanif’s narration is more nation-state oriented than for instance Mohsin Hamid’s, who still insists on bringing the colonial phantoms out from the closet.

If at some stages the military jargon bored me, the reading experience was saved by weird, nostalgic details that most people grown in the 1980s can identify: Top Gun specs, Bruce Lee posters, George Michael lip-sync and rows of government-owned white Toyota Corollas, taking unruly soldiers to underground prisons.

Like Lahore Fort, which during Zia rule still served as a torture chamber; now it has been cleared for tourists. Here the protagonist Under Officer Ali Shigri’s arrival to the historical setting:

“In the historic city of Lahore, the Fort is a very historic place. It was built by the same guy who built the Taj Mahal, the Mughal king Shahjahan. He was thrown into prison by his own son, a kind of forced premature retirement. I have never been to the Fort but I have seen it in a shampoo ad.”

“Do I look like the kind of person who needs a lesson in history at midnight?”

(p. 75)

“I have seen it in a shampoo ad.” Only a Pakistani standup comedian could say so. The Under Officer’s lectures to himself in the prison cells and in transit from one prison to another are hilarious, considering that they also seriously serve as a testament of a torturous era.