by Mohammed Hanif
The figure of the dictator is a fascinating one to explore in fiction. These people manage to hold together a country (to varying degrees of success) simply based on the power of their personalities and their desire for power. In A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Mohammed Hanif explores the last days of General Zia ul-Haq, who controlled Pakistan until his death in 1988.
Hanif portrays Zia as deeply religious, and prone to great acts of self-deception. His Zia places the entire country on Red Alert because of a Koran verse he randomly reads one morning. He also deludes himself into believing that the people of his country love him, and is continually shocked when evidence to the contrary surfaces. In short, he's a petty, boorish man who enjoys wielding his power, but has convinced himself that everything he does is for the general good.
His story is contrasted with that of Ali Shigri, a young officer whose father, a colonel, once worked closely with Zia's circle, and whose apparent suicide was likely anything but. Ali commands a drill squad that is expected to perform for the General, and he is entertaining notions of using the opportunity to kill the man. Before he can put his plan into motion, he is detained because his roommate and best friend has gone missing.
The two stories carry on parallel to one another for most of the book. Ali suffers imprisonment in a medieval dungeon, while Zia remains confined to the Army House, where he is at the mercy of his over-protective guard and his unhappy wife. The reader becomes privy to the plots against Zia, most notably by his Intelligence head General Akhter.
This is historical fiction - Zia was killed in a plane crash in 1988, alongside many of the people portrayed in this book. Hanif has done a wonderful job of blurring fact and fiction, and writing a novel that is satirical while sticking to established facts. This is a very well-written book, which brings to mind many of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's books that also portray brutal leaders in the waning days. I enjoyed reading it.