Posted by: Corri van de Stege | March 17, 2009

Two more books

I’ve read a couple of books over the last few weeks that I have not yet mentioned or reviewed. The longer it waits the more distant the stories become and so here is an effort to try and bring you up to date. They’re a mixed bunch, to say the least.

Let’s start with A case of exploding mangoes by Mohammed Hanif. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, it was such fun.  However, I finished it just when there was the shooting in Pakistan of the cricket team, with real deaths and wounded and it seemed almost in bad taste to be writing about the explosion of an aeroplane as the denouement of the story and describe it as ‘funny’. As someone says in one of the books I recently read ‘funny – (hahaha)’ or ‘funny (strange)’?

This book is funny hahaha even if strange as well. Once you get into the inside of it, it takes you along its own wayward path and slowly it all unravels. The prologue provides an account of the crashing of the plane that carries General Zia and his entourage, in the middle of Bahawalpur Desert with the first person character, Ali Sighri, nudging you to look closer at the tv pictures because you might just see him. The implication is that of course no one has until now noticed him and so this provides the introduction to another explanation of what could have happened to that plane that exploded in mid air in 1988, killing General Zia ul-Haq and all those with him, the US Ambassador to Pakistan, the Head of Inter Services Intelligence General Akhtar in.  No one knows the real story of what happened, or at least, it is not public knowledge, and so here is a book that takes you along in its imaginary tale of Ali, son of the late Colonel Quli Shigri and his role in this calamitous event.  

As I said at the start, it is a great story, taking you through the idiosyncratic possibilities that the cause of this crash might have been a number of things, ranging from a mechanical failure, a blind woman’s curse, the mango season and a case of overripe mangoes on the plane, to the possibility that it was Ali himself. Ali has plenty of good reasons to want to kill the General, however, there are so many other events that seem to collide with the plane in mid air.

The book is well written and the story addictive: you just want to know what happens in the end, and I’m not going to tell you so you will have to read it! A good page turner, as they say. 

Another book, quite a different one, that I finished recently is John Updike’s Rabbit Run. No, I had not read it yet and picked it up during one of my more recent retail therapy sessions. In this case there was a different reason for not wanting to review it immediately: I started to compare my own feelings about this book with the feelings I had when reading Mahfouz’s Paradise Walk, which I recently talked about. Both books evoked a kind of anger and annoyance in me, both books are very well written, but both books made me feel irritated about their treatment of women. Then, of course, it’s not the book or the author that treats the women they talk about in a particular way, it is the male characters, and even the women themselves who view women and women’s position in a particular setting, class or culture in a way that I find objectionable. And that is of course the crunch of the mixed feelings, and so I am glad now that I did not review Rabbit Run on the spur of the moment: I have now realised that I am in fact annoyed with the era and the particular cultural landscape that Updike tackles in this book.

The male character, Rabbit (Harry) Angstrom, is the person through whose eyes we view women and men in this book and it is not always a pretty sight. But then, Rabbit is not a very pretty person, even if he thinks he is beyond and above the average daily life in which he finds himself. A one-time basketball star player in high school, he is now in his twenties and hates his life, his wife, his parents, well, really everyone around him for being so mediocre. He deserves better. The only solution he has however is to run, every time again, like a rabbit, backwards and forwards, from his wife, his son, his parents to his mistress and then to friends and back again. He runs like a rabbit, sideways and backwards and forward, not knowing where he actually wants to be. Meanwhile, he observes his wife, loves her and then hates her, sees her in all her ugliness and then loves her for it, only to turn round and then utterly dislike her for being an alcoholic, or simply for not allowing him to make love to her when she has just come back from hospital after having given birth to their second child. Rabbit acts on impulse, so he runs away again and at the end of it all you cannot but feel utterly depressed at such a waste of lives and opportunities, at such mediocrity which is really Rabbit’s as much as he likes to think it’s everyone else’s mediocrity.

The book is very cynical and that’s probably why you begin to feel depressed when reading it, it’s not a pretty story, there’s nothing uplifting in any of it, there’s no grace, it’s violent. Yet, it’s very well written, hence the prizes, but did I like it? Not really I think, but then I probably did not expect I would like it, let’s be honest! Is it well-written? Oh yes, I could not help but hold my breath at times at the way you are moved forward, urged on with the story; it’s so full of details and yet precise, you’re always there right in the middle of it and part of it.


Responses

  1. Rabbit, Run is one of my favorite novels, very much because it is so very well-written, but also for the picture it draws of a time and place. One thing I try to consider when I read books from this era (or any era) is how people become victims of their own (or their culture’s) mythology. For all the subjugation of women (in which women also played a part), men also created and bought fully into an idea of “what it means to be a man,” and they fell victim to it as well. But it’s very difficult for a person to see how he (or she) is perpetrating these myths, continuing the cycle. I think that’s true for a lot of Rabbits…

  2. Ditto on your Rabbit Run review. I read it ages ago, felt the angst in it, didn’t qutie get it, and yet sensed it and did NOT go on to read the other “rabbit” books (3 or 4 more of them?) But I have always loved Updike’s writing. Please check out his poetry, SC. You’ll get a whole different view of the writer.

  3. Interested to read your comments on Rabbit and I’m intrigued to see the quality of his writing given all the accolades. And I’d also like to read more on Pakistan (and Iran) so thanks for the review.


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