Dictator novels, as a genre begun probably with Asturias, 'The President'. It is, however, came into prominence as a genre in the late sixties and early seventies with the a flurry of novels ( 10 novels written by 10 prominent writers ) from some of the leading writers in the Latin America. The political systems and the vibrant literature scene gave us some of the best novels of the 20th century. Garica Marquez's Autumn of the Patriarch, Alejo Carpenter's Reasons of the State, Roa Bastos' 'I the Supreme' were some of the highlights of this series. Mario Vargas Llosa's "Feast of the Goat' published late in the 2000, was one of the last of the series belonging to the Dictator fiction group. Most of the Latin America, by then was returning to democracy. 90s and the new millennium saw a similar influx of such novels from Africa ( Snakepit from Moses Isegawa for example) and a few from Europe ( Inquisitor's manual of Antonio Lobo Antunes, few of the works from Saramago, Kadare) came during the same time. Asia, by far was lagging here, not because of the lack of dictatorship in these part of the world, but most of the writers were limited themselves to writing anti-establishment novels , but not something that can be classified as a 'dictator novel'. Mohammed Hanif's fictionals attempt on the death of General Zia Ul-Huq of Pakistan, to me, is one that can considered to be one that can be kept along with the earlier mentioned books.
Gen Zia, the military ruler of Pakistan for over 11 years after a coup that dethroned a democratically elected regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was killed in an air crash on the 17th of August 1988. The flight carrying him and 11 of his top brass of military leaders along with the US Ambassador, disappeared from the control radar soon after take off from Bahawalpur in Punjab after his inspection of a tank parade. There are various conspiracy theories that went around for a while, but none were clearly established. The case is closed with no clear evidence, apart from few murmur in the local circuit.
Mohammed Hanif, rebuilding the days preceding the events with his own version. Building through the eyes of the narrator, Ali Shigri, a junior officer in the Pakistani Airforce Academy, he cleverly threads the story around the hidden fortress of the country's dreaded president, military and intelligent nexus and their internal struggle for supremacy. Ali Shigri's father, an erstwhile colonel with the Pakistan Army, involved in leading the country's engagements in the Afghan War, where his country and the CIA supporting the Mujahideens of Afghan, managed to send the Soviets packing. However, he was found hanging from the ceiling fan, on one morning, a case which was concluded as suicide, left Ali convinced that this has involvement of some of the high authorities in the regime. Seeking his revenge for his fathers death Ali, joining the Air force Academy, training under an American Instructor.
Hanif Mohammed, try to explore the possible angles to the conspiracy theories, by expanding various simultaneous threads, culminating on the final event, with no possible conclusions. His attempt is not to establish the truth behind the conspiracy theory, but to take the readers through the journey of possibilities, and the inner life and political power struggles within the regime. The brutal force of the Military and the Intelligentia, the looming threat on the leader, the secret and definite plots to eliminate potential threats within the regime, the constant distrust among the top leaders, the larger global interest and manipulations by the World Power, the isolation of the rulers and the ruled, the vast gulf between the make belief and the real issues at the ground level ( Gen Zia, experience one by himself while attempting a disguise , but not before the alert spy network tracked him and put him back at ease) and the idiosyncrasies of the leader himself are something that get the readers hooked to this book.
Most of the description and narrative conforms to the general believes, of any regime. Torture chambers, inhuman treatment, the propagandists, putting up the show of solidarity and national interest in front of the leader and the visiting dignitaries, the cruel business interests of the corporates, the general distrust , the portrayal of the leader as someone with his own ridiculous habits and mannerisms, the peep into his domestic life ( an object of terror to the nation turns to be a voiceless, powerless husband) and many similar scenes that one is familiar with such books do appear aplenty. Running in two parallel threads, one focusing on the General and his paranoia about his safety ( Code Red protection) and his constant fear of the attempt on his life and the episode focussing on the narrator Ali Shigri, his capture, interrogation, torture, solitary confinement and subsequent release, thanks to a change of handle of ISI by a clever move by the General Zia ( in an attempt to remove the power of one of his potential conspirator). The section on General Zia in general was funny, often ridiculous, caricaturing him as close to a clown in some places. However, the other thread was more profound and with a lot more intensity.
I seems to have liked the book, probably because my initial expectation was very low. The book is partly political satire, and partly a murder mystery and on conspiracy theory. The subject is a bit tricky as he has to introduce fictional characters to the real life people. It has to ride the fictional path, but abiding to the real life events and characters. The risk of drawing parallels of the fictional characters to the real life characters ( the ISI chief Kiyani in the book, is probably one such, but in the novel he joins the ill-fated team in their last journey) always a possibility. The writing is brisk and precise. The pacing is a bit uneven, probably because of the dual threads that run parallelly. Impressive read.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes ( 2008)
Wiki, NY Times, The Guardian