There is an ancient saying that when lovers fall out, a plane goes down. This is the story of one such plane. Why did a Hercules C130, the world’s sturdiest plane, carrying Pakistan’s military dictator General Zia ul-Haq, go down on 17 August 1988? Was it because of:
- Mechanical failure
- Human error
- The CIA’s impatience
- A blind woman’s curse
- Generals not happy with their pension plans
- The mango season
- Or could it be the narrator Ali Shigri?
~ Synopsis from the back of the book
This book is a sort of reimagining, a fictional take on an actual incident – the death of General Zia-ul-Haq in a suspicious plane crash. At that time, a board of enquiry suggested that the most probable cause of the crash was a criminal act of sabotage perpetrated in the aircraft. It also suggested that poisonous gases were released which incapacitated the passengers and crew, which would explain why no Mayday signal was given.
Using these cues, Mohammed Hanif spins a fantastic story loosely based on the last few weeks of General Zia’s life.
The story develops primarily using the viewpoints of:
- Ali Shigri – a Junior Officer in the Pakistani Air Force who seeks revenge for the death of his father, which he is convinced, although apparently a suicide, was orchestrated by General Zia himself.
- General Zia-ul-Haq – President of Pakistan who is growing increasingly paranoid (and rightfully so), thinking about all the people who would want him dead.
The time period is the late 1980s, when the United States was fighting a proxy war against the communist threat of Russia in Afghanistan – a very interesting period in Pakistani and Afghani history.
The book is populated with colorful larger than life characters whom Hanif has no problems twisting into caricatures. There are improbably hilarious dialogues between Zia and his wife, Zia and Ceauşescu (dictator of Romania at that time), and even a hilarious appearance by Osama Bin Laden (OBL) who is invited to a 4th of July Tex Mex barbecue in Pakistan. Among the invited guests is the local C.I.A. chief, who tells Osama, Nice meeting you, OBL. Good work, keep it up.
So, like I said..this book is funny in a dark, sarcastic way…gallows humor you might say, and it is very much in the style of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, which is one of my all-time favorite books. I enjoyed the humor thoroughly.
Where the book was a slight let-down was the heart factor. I didn’t feel any emotional connect with Ali Shigri – the main character in the book. This is primarily because the book goes back and forth between the viewpoints of different characters, and because it goes back and forth in time. This kind of writing is hard to do; Hanif has done it skilfully, but still something seems lacking. It’s only rather late in the book when we get to know the details about Ali Shigri’s father’s death in a surprisingly beautifully written couple of pages, that I started to empathize and get Ali Shigri. It was a bit too late in the book though.
That’s pretty much the only gripe I have with this book. Overall, I liked the book very much, and I even want to revisit specific sections again…especially the ending. It’s hard to convey a sense of suspense when you already know how the book ends, but Mohammed Hanif succeeded in keeping me reading late into the night following the twists and turns that happen until the final crash.
A great read!!
Thanks to Random House for sending me a copy of this book to read and review.