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Recommended and made available to me by B. and consequently while the internet tells me that there was probably a U.S. edition, and I am certain of a British edition, this copy is from Peshawar. B. suggested this book strongly enough that I tried to find a U.S. copy and had no luck. Just to mention that at the start.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22 (oh dear, sorry, wrong book, ahem:) Mohammed Hanif's first and so far only novel is a fictionalized version of events surrounding the (entirely real) plane crash which killed the then President of Pakistan Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, and several generals in August 1988. B. described it as a mystery novel, the blurb is by John le Carré, the back calls it a black comedy and biting satire and I could add several other genres to that list except that even to mention several of them would critically spoil the plot.

One thread of the novel is on the level of international affairs: looks inside the head of Zia, his bodyguard, his generals, his wife. This thread is comedy so black it occasionally comes around the other side and starts being funny because it's so insistently not funny at all; the problem is that much of it is quite believable and if the world actually works this way we are probably all doomed, which is what makes the book genuinely hilarious. You laugh that you may not hurt your head from face-palming. It's kind of amazing that twenty years is sufficient statute of limitations for a satire this vicious, except that from everything I've heard somebody had to do it.

The other thread follows Ali Shigri, a young officer in the Pakistani Air Force whose much more illustrious military father's suicide was recently staged by upper government officials. Shigri is in no particular order competent, intelligent, bitter, cynical, funny, about six times as naive as he thinks he is, desperately in love, obsessively grieving, and in entirely over his head. His first person narration gives the book its heart and is almost noirish, except with more being beaten up and thrown into prison by one's superior officers than usual. He provides the focus for the ridiculous number of plots swirling about, as of course the question is not whether anyone staged the plane crash, but who it might have been. And what they were thinking, and whether any of this was remotely intentional. Shigri is that rare thing in a noir or a satire, a hero who can rise to actual tragedy; his hatred of God is the most optimistic thing about the book and every time we see it it is genuinely cheering.

If looked at objectively, this ought to be the most depressing book I've read all year, but I mean it when I say it is funny-- laugh-out-loud funny, on multiple occasions-- and it's just too good to be depressing. The plotting's too good, the characters are too good, the ironies of history and the ironies of fate and the ironies that are the author smiling at you from behind his meta and saying now, really, what were you expecting? and proceeding with, if there is such a thing, the opposite of eucatastrophe, one truly, truly epic fuck-up. This book is a child of Heller and Orwell, by way of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and though I will not claim greatness for it, it has learned some lessons from its parents. Among which is to be genuinely enjoyable, so that the audience doesn't run away immediately. And I like it better than Catch-22, which is sometimes gratuitously nasty, whereas this one is never gratuitous.

This has the feel of an authorial one-off, one of those books where the writer may well have said (fully and successfully) what he had to say. But if Hanif writes another novel I will be very interested, and I recommend this one, to those who have an extremely high tolerance for cynicism.

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