Mohammed Hanif's third novel, Red Birds, is set in a refugee camp surrounded on all sides by a vast desert; both the place and the desert are unnamed, and quite strangely so. But it doesn't strain a reader to gauge that it is a Middle Eastern country, war-torn, and inhabited by Muslims. Maybe this sea of sandy expanse is in some part of Afghanistan, or Iraq. One thing is certain, though, that this place is battered by a blitz, routinely bombarded by the US air force, leaving entire neighbourhoods in a jumble of rubble, killing civilians, whether under-aged or old.
So unlike Khaled Hossaini's A Thousand Splendid Suns in which we are certain that it is set in Afghanistan, mostly in Kabul. But the difference goes much deeper than that.
Hossaini writes a story that in more ways than one validates the official narrative of US military interventions in Afghanistan. With a prose zinged sufficiently with lyrical grace, he sketches his characters—Mariam, Laila—whose mission to escape from their abusive husband is disrupted by the rise of the Taliban. What follows is pretty much predictable for readers already familiar with The Kite Runner: women beaten, abused, and when it comes to the crunch, executed publicly by the Taliban. Yes, of course, they are finally saved by US air raids that oust the Taliban and give the Afghans back their city where now peace reigns. Taking my cue from Salman Rushdie's acerbic critique of David Attenborough's biopic Gandhi (in Imaginary Homelands), I call it the sins of omission at the expense of truth and political depth.
Hanif, on the other hand, gives us a story that looks at the saga of US military interventions from an entirely opposite angle. The tone is scathingly sarcastic. Stripped of rhetorical tinge, his narrative is thoroughly caustic; it burns and scalds, just like the heat that arises constantly out of the desert as well as the bombs falling from US fighter jets. But an apt combination of wit, irony, and absurdity, diluted carefully with dabs of philosophical queries, turns it into an impeccable satire that brings out the darker side of US-sponsored wars and the commercial ventures associated with war-time economy.
The narrative is divided between Major Ellie, an American bombardier who finds himself lost in a desert upon a crash; Momo, a 14-year old boy who drives a jeep Cheroke 3600 CC; and Mutt, Momo's dog who blindly loves his master. There is no third person narrator; in each chapter, either Ellie or Momo or Mutt talks about their own crises and obsessions. Yes, Mutt is a character with a consciousness and of all the characters introduced, he's the wittiest and most sensitive whose thoughts wax philosophical every now and then. One wonders whether these chapter-length speeches are monologues or not. It is through such narrations that the story progresses and other important characters grow.
The central tension is about the disappearance of Momo’s elder brother, Bro Ali, who, after working with the American soldiers at the Hangar (an American re-fuelling base for US forces) for several months, has disappeared mysteriously like many others of his age.
When Ellie is found out almost dying out of starvation, Momo drives him back to the very camp that he was assigned to bomb. Then there is the USAID consultant, always referred to as the "do-gooder", who's working on her book about post-war or war-time "teenaged Muslim mind". On top of ludicrously ironic moments like these, the book is peppered abundantly with thoughts, emotions, queries, and observations that made me frequently roar out in laughter just the way I did while reading Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia, or Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint; at the same time, they've also made me think deeply about all possible aspects of any US-imposed war, from an Arab or Afghan mother or brother's sense of loss to the absurdity of international aid agencies to the humane sides of American soldiers and aid workers.
This book is a rare feat of satiric excellence achieved innovatively with glowing streaks of literary and philosophical queries.
Rifat Munim is Literary Editor, Dhaka Tribune.