Monday, August 4, 2008

At Long Last, A Great Satisfying Read!

There are some excellent reviews out there. Of the Case of Exploding Mangoes.
New York Times
Jai Arjun

And some overly critical ones as well. The Guardian for example.

What can I add? Yet it is one of those books that affects deeply and goes beyond trite words such as unputdownable, brilliant and so on.
And I don't think it is merely because we in the subcontinent are aware of this moment of our regional history - Of Zia's assassination in 1988.

Each of us will have our own favorite parts in this book as we read it ...
One to me, is this. ... Almost at the tail end of the book, 'Ali' the protagonist (who is in every alternate chapter, author writing in first person) grabs the book his friend Obaid is reading - "Chronicles of a Death Foretold", and reads the first sentence.
"So does Nasr really die?"
"I think so"
"It says so right here in the first sentence. Why keep reading it when you already know that the hero is going to die."
"To see how he dies. What were his last words. That kind of thing"
"You are a pervert, comrade." I throw the book back at him.

And Mohammed Hanif has most successfully thrown history back at us - After all, we all know Zia (a hero in his own eyes at least) is dead, and the book in the very first chapter describes his last walk up to 'Pak One'. The one that explodes four minutes after take-off.
Like a Moebius strip we come back at the end of the book to the beginning, and it is magnetic enough to make me want to continue reading all over again.
So I would wager that this viciously satirical book will have hundreds of thousands readers like me, across the subcontinent, across the US and the rest of the world, devouring every bit. Reading the book at a multiple of levels.
To the West, this book reminds of Yossarian and Catch 22. To us Indians, it is seminal as well . Somewhat like what English August was to the IAS, this one is to the Pakistan Air Force - and I expect all Armed Forces anywhere in the world. I was also reminded of Manil Suri's Death of Vishnu somewhere - I am not quite sure why.
Here then is a master writer. His command over language, situations, satire is awesome. Even the words related to religion. Words that the rest of the world is usually mortally scared of, words used gingerly in general in the fear of hurting sentiments of some moral guardians somewhere. Ditto for his searing indictment of archaic laws in a radically Islamized nation.

And New York Times has indicated the book's zany timeliness - the book is about a time when the Soviet forces were about to pullout of Afghanistan, now in real-time of the book release, it is NATO's pullout time from Afghanistan; back then it was the mystery of Zia's death along with so many of his key Generals, now it is Benazir who has recently been assassinated. (NYT also makes a very pertinent observation in the beginning about the fact that it is 'Men' who love to write about things like assassinations!)

I for one am most fascinated by the Reality Show nature of the current world we live in. Our entire media. TV shows - Fear Factor, the choice of our music icons, Big Brother and what not. That tread a thin line between fact and fiction, where it is all a simulated reality. So when a popular lead music icon dies - in real life last week, it is almost as if the reality show TRPs just shot up, so it was worthwhile to someone somewhere. Kind of eerie.

This author - coincidentally or not, he works in the world of 24 X 7 TV: BBC - follows such a genre as well - with 'a foot in both boats' as we would say - of real history as well as masterfully manufactured fiction. And gets away with it. I have often wondered how people who are alive in real life take it when they seem to wander into the realms of fiction via the imagination of authors.
Do they shrug it off as non-facts, or do they get all het up? In this book, apart from the usual General Beg, CIA etc. , Mrs. Zia ul Haq comes off - if not exactly smelling of roses, at least a person one can wonderfully empathize with. Similarly Nancy Raphel, wife of the then US Ambassador to Pakistan (the ambassador went down in Pak One along with Zia) surely she exists somewhere out there. Is she then to be treated as 'real' or not, as part of this world we live in? Or should she be treated as a faded shadow, no longer relevant thus to be 'fictionalized'. Perhaps she is a fictional character through and through. And there is no Nancy Raphel?

At some point, 'Ali' calls Lata and Asha the 'old, fat, ugly Indian sisters who both sing like they were teenage sex kittens' . So should Lata and Asha ignore it. After all wherever they are spoken of in the book, it is as if in Ali Shigri's thoughts and his world , as if 'through the mouth of a fictional character'.
Or is it about the author's own aversions?

American reviewers of course are hugely amused that OBL of Laden & Co is in the book as well, when he comes to the party thrown by the ambassador and where all Americans come dressed as the mujahideen.

And I begin to feel : do we in our own lives nowadays live like that? Not quite sure where fact ends and fiction begins. And perhaps it just doesn't matter in this post-modern world we inhabit.

Aka 'Cigarette smoking is injurious to health', we all know the line 'All characters in this book bear no resemblance to anyone living or dead'.
Random House the publishers have done away with this statutory announcement in this book.
Making you wonder why all the other books all these days required it anyway!

Ultimately it is Le Carre's description of the book - 'Deliciously Anarchic' - that says it all.
My money is on this book for the Booker.
If this book misses this year's Man Booker, all it means,
critics' critiques have begun to override the public imagination and the mangoes were sour.

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