Quiet Tones in Explosive Times
The Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif talks about his country and his debut novel, "A Case of Exploding Mangoes"
Cautious. The man is extremely cautious and reserved. No sarcastic, fiery catchphrases about the current situation in Pakistan. Mohammed Hanif chooses his words carefully, his goal is clear, he does not want to provoke a scandal and have the Pakistani censors on his back. He is on guard like a blind man who has learned to move in the dark.
The 44-year old journalist, who lives in Pakistan and works for the BBC, scored an immediate hit with "A Case of Exploding Mangoes.” His hard-hitting debut novel about the Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq’s regime, and the unsolved plane crash that killed him, was hot off the press when it was nominated for the 2008 Man Booker Award. As fate would have it, the laurels went to Indian author Aravind Adiga for “The White Tiger.” But with the next nomination, the satirical political thriller with the exploding mangoes swept all the way to the top and was awarded the Common Wealth Writers’ Prize 2009. Through some piquant and anarchic twists in the plot, the paths of a crow, scheming CIA agents, a blind woman’s curse, and the end of the mango season all come together to abruptly end the dictator’s life when his VVIP flight crashes five minutes after takes off. Even Osama bin Laden, abbreviated to OBL, makes an appearance at a barbecue in the U.S. Embassy. A highly political book from the powder keg Pakistan, one might think. And anyone who has read the book expected a few loud and clear words. But Mohammed Hanif is quiet.
“It is” says the salt and pepper, curly-haired author “a love story and a thriller.” He leans back in his hooded sweatshirt "everybody wants to write a book some time or other, I’m sure you know a few people who want to. I wrote the book out of sheer boredom.” "Boredom?” Yes, in fact, what had initially seemed like a sugar-coated version of the truth turns into a very plausible story. "I grew up in a dreary village in the Pakistani Punjab. When I turned 16, I was allowed to join the Air Force, I thought, this is exciting, I can get out and learn about the world. The opposite was the case. We were shielded and I wasn’t good at parading around and all those sorts of things.” The boy, who wasn’t taught English at school, didn’t take up a weapon; rather he took a book. In the Cadet School, he secretly borrowed books from the army library, and for the first time he read the classics—Böll, Llosa, Borges, the Russians – in English. "Criticize, you know, that’s not what they did to us there; that was something for intellectuals. I was caught a few times. There were beatings, or you’d get forced to take a cold shower at night in your underwear.” The torture chamber in the book was, of course, made up, as was the blood splattered on the ceiling, the rubber rings, and the hot Philipp’s iron. And, naturally, so was the scene where the dictator Zia is standing in front of his desk with his pants down so that Saudi Prince Naif’s personal physician can inspect his anus for worms. General Zia’s cheek lies between the Pakistani national flag and the army. "You have worms, sir," says the doctor with his Arab-American accent and shows him the dead worms in his hand.
Mohammed Hanif was able to draw on his early years in the military for his richly grotesque debut, the first sentences of which had been formulated five years ago. Despite the explosive flights of fantasy, it seems plausible, even in his home country. "It is" - his mouth twists into an endless grin - "Pretty interesting. I am a political journalist. For example, we’ve got a video that shows young Pakistani women getting beaten. Nobody believes our story, even though we’ve got the evidence. And yet, in this fictional story that I barely researched, people ask me: How do you know that? They believe everything!"
At first, no publisher in Pakistan wanted to publish "A Case of Exploding Mangoes," so in the truest sense of the word, he looked deep inside the bowels of power. Is it also about a homoerotic relationship? Again, Hanif plays it down, the subject is critical. It doesn’t seem to bother him that it was first published outside the country, because he lived in London for 12 years, where the novel debuted. Possibly he even prefers it that way. Because his book, which was written in English, has not caused any controversy yet in his homeland, only a tiny elite in Pakistan speaks English and reads literature. But now, after all the international accolades, it is being translated into the national language Urdu. "Hopefully, it won’t cause any controversy in the press," says Hanif, his forehead wrinkles. "There’s a lot going on in the country, nobody really pays any attention to me."
But what political relevance does the novel have anyway? Why Zia ul-Haq today, 21 years after his death? By Islamizing the country, couldn’t the general be considered the father of Jihad, the holy war? "No," Hanif parries. "I wouldn’t give him that honor. When the communists invaded Afghanistan, the Americans searched for a solution. They allied themselves with Zia. And then they got the idea to send a bunch of religious and angry young men from all over the world to fight the communists. Everybody got thrown together at that time: the CIA, the Europeans and the Saudis. Who would want to take credit for being the father of jihad? "Maybe, apart from the boredom, that’s why he wrote the book. Because of what is going on today. The newest developments? Terrifying. But not as bad as it looks in the New York Times. "Sure people are worried," he says. But in Karachi, where he is now living since 2008, after a 12 year sojourn in London with his wife and eleven-year-old son, life carries on as normal. And life is beautiful there with the sea and even with the occasional loss of electricity. It’s a tolerant place, where you can breathe. In London, children also were senselessly stabbed to death. And it was in Karachi, he adds, where it all began. It is here he found his first real job as a journalist, after his first TV review which he wrote while still in the military; this is where the life he was looking for really began. An exciting life, where he could meet people. And yes, he also found his love there.
And what is his next project? "Oh, lots. Maybe another play, lots of stories, yes, even a novel. "He takes a glimpse from under his shock of hair, and adds:" A love story. I still don’t know where that will lead. That´s why I write. To fight boredom. " And of course boredom is a good reason. And love. What other reason could there be?
From an interview of the author with Mohammed Hanif in May 2009
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
(05 May 09 - 17 November 09)