What caused the mysterious plane crash in August 1988 that killed the military dictator Zia ul-Haq, several of his senior generals and the United States ambassador to Islamabad? It is one of the great unanswered questions of Pakistan's violent history. At the time, some suspicious, phosphorus-covered mango seeds discovered in the wreckage sparked countless conspiracy theories. Did the CIA spike the fruit with VX gas to eliminate the increasingly unstable Zia once he had neutralised the Soviet threat in Afghanis tan? Was it death by lethal mango?
Mohammed Hanif's fabulist reimagining of Zia's assassination ends my long wait (since Rushdie's Shame in 1983) for an unashamedly fun page-turner set in my beleaguered and notoriously un-fun homeland. Three murder plots (including a mischievous riff on the "mango theory") compete for their target until the last, suspenseful page. Along the way, A Case of Exploding Mangoes outlines how Zia's cynical collusion with the US in Afghanistan during the 1980s turned Pakistan into the dangerously leaky condom between the west and political Islam that it is today. Osama Bin Laden pops up in a diverting cameo at the US embassy party to celebrate the defeat of the Soviets by US-sponsored mujahedin in Afghanistan.
This brassy, savvy, comic debut is the latest in the thrilling new wave of Pakistani English literature - including Mohsin Hamid's Moth Smoke, Nadeem Aslam's Season of the Rainbirds and Kamila Shamsie's Kartography - that places Pakistan, rather than its relationship with the west, confidently at the centre of the action. These new writers are in no sense the literary children of empire. The influences apparent in Hanif's prose include the grotesque, scatological, surrealist political satire and theatre of the absurd of Wole Soyinka's Madmen and Specialists, John le Carré's spy novels and Joseph Heller's classic parody of military bureaucracy, Catch-22.
The novel is refreshingly free of post-colonial literary flourishes. As the London-based Iraqi playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak mischievously observed in his 2007 play Baghdad Wedding, "The English only give Booker Prizes to Indians if their books contain local colour - someone slicing a mango or someone running through some luscious forest, or hovering on a carpet carried by invisible waves of magic realism." Hanif is mesmerised instead by the landscape of naff 1980s popular culture. Loving descriptions of Toyota Corollas, Baywatch, Levis, Avanti, Top Gun sunglasses, fake Poison cologne, Where Eagles Dare and Coca-Cola bottle tops pepper his prose.
But it is the unashamedly populist timbre, the defiantly silly, knockabout humour and the sheer brio of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, that mark it out as a new departure in Pakistani writing and a bold cultural intervention in British publishing. It is probably the first English novel about Pakistan with ambitions to cross over from literary to popular fiction. Hanif combines a journalist's gift for concise, punchy storytelling (he is head of the BBC World Service Urdu section and trained as a pilot in the Pakistani army during Zia's rule) with an affable, laconic, breezy, believable protagonist, Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, who leads us into hard-to-reach corners of Pakistani society: the presidential bedroom, army barracks, prisons and torture chambers.
As the critic Muneeza Shamsie has written, "The tyrannical nature of Pakistan's various governments has not been conducive to freedom of expression in any language. But there has always been an oversensitivity to English writing, particularly if it is deemed as 'creating a bad impression' of the country internationally." This burden of representation, combined with Pakistan's current position on the geopolitical knife edge and under the west's close and fearful watch, has not left much creative breathing room for fictional Pakistanis.
Which is why the three - dimensional characterisation of silly, sexy, righteous, convincingly young-at-heart Ali Shigri is pathetically gratifying. His voice rings true whether he's having sex with his Rilke-reading roomie and lover, Obaid ("my starched khaki trousers suddenly felt very tight"), muttering to his neighbour in the depths of a Mughal torture chamber, or having a bad trip on Chitrali hashish. Shigri on spycraft: "The US of A has got satellites with cameras so powerful they can count the exact number of hairs on your bum. Bannon showed us a picture of this satellite and claimed that he had seen bum pictures taken from space but couldn't show them to us because they were classified."
The portrayal of Zia's last, hyper-paranoid, megalomaniacal days self-imprisoned in the presidential home is merciless. The final image of him leaking blood from his tapeworm- ravaged innards while trying to maintain appearances for the US ambassador is particularly unforgettable. But a dead and discredited dictator is an unsatisfyingly soft target. The excoriation of Zia's rule is more cathartic than dangerous, as is the lampooning of the cast of corrupt generals, secret service goons and US soldiers and diplomats. Their legacy is best illustrated by the constant intrusion of the ghosts of the silenced or the disappeared and dispossessed whom Shigri encounters in the military dungeon.
Finally, it is the parallels between General Zia and President Musharraf that give the novel its political force. In Zia we see Musharraf, whom Hanif has described as being like "Zia on speed, a kind of chest-thumping instead of hand-wringing version of Zia". The self-justifying generals repeat the mantra, "I am one of ten men standing between the US and the Soviets." For Soviets, we now inevitably read al-Qaeda.