A Case of Exploding Mangoes

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Mohammed Hanif, Jonathan Cape, £12.99

Mohammed Hanif thoroughly enjoys himself in his first novel where he explores some fairly outrageous scenarios to explain the death of Pakistan's military dictator General Zia in an aircrash in 1988. But it's a pretty black comedy describing when Zia, backed by Reagan, built up Islamist radicalism against the USSR in Afghanistan.

The plot centres round Ali Shigri, a trainee pilot who has found his father hanging from a ceiling fan in an apparent suicide and then discovers his friend and fellow officer Obaid is missing. Ali's quest for revenge and love for his lost friend take him on a whirlwind ride which finds him in a Mughal dungeon. Will he ever emerge and what do the authorities have on him?

General Zia lives in a world of paranoia, marooned in a sea of commando bodyguards and food tasters. One gloriously funny chapter must throw a light on dictators everywhere. Zia attends a National Day military parade, which, for "security reasons", is recorded long before the day itself. Not trusting the loyalty of real musicians and workers, soldiers are dressed as fishermen or singers, and sweepers from army HQ as heroic peasants. Hanif has created a highly enjoyable account of a mysterious incident in Pakistan's history. His mixture of historical fiction and fact exposes wonderfully the brutal power and, more optimistically, the precarious fragility of puppet dictators.