The ugliness of war is brilliantly captured in this wildly original novel narrated by a teenage refugee and a philosopher-dog,
When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.” So says John Yossarian, the bombardier protagonist of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a work to which Mohammed Hanif’s Man Booker-longlisted first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, was widely compared. Like Heller, British-Pakistani Hanif is a pilot turned satirist; but it’s his third novel, Red Birds, that is the closest relative to Heller’s classic satire of the second world war.
Major Ellie is a US air force bombardier who starts out eager to scorch some “goat-fuckers” in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. His laser-guided bombs are labelled “YES”, and “OH YESS”. “There is a war on,” his colonel has told him, “and what is a war if not an opportunity.” So he volunteers for missions to escape weekends with his wife: “Nothing better than shedding your load, that shoulder-sapping feeling.” But he crashes in the desert and, after eight days of starving and wandering, is rescued by a smart-mouthed teen called Momo and his dog Mutt, residents of the very refugee camp he was supposed to bomb.
Like Heller’s Milo Minderbinder, Momo is a capitalist with loyalty for hire: a destitute teenager with a single copy of Fortune and a fake American accent. Momo’s older brother, Bro Ali, disappeared after a mysterious transaction with Americans occupying a nearby hangar (always capitalised, untouchable, “the Hangar” fascinates and terrifies camp residents). This loss, and the mystery behind it, drives the plot and most of the character development: it makes Momo a richer character than Milo. The state of Momo’s heart and mind is the most moving and engaging aspect of the book: he is clever, unapologetically ambitious, funny, heartbroken. Momo complicates our picture of helpless children in refugee camps; he understands the business of politics and war, accuses the US directly, questions its easy lies, and asks to be paid for his ideas (which he brands with American-sounding names: Sands Global and Falcons for Ethical Hunting).
But the instant the reader becomes interested in Momo’s inner world, in walks a pretty USAID consultant – the most obviously satirical character in the book – wanting to study the Muslim teenage mind. She is “conducting a survey on post-conflict resolution strategies that involve local histories and folklore”. Nicknamed “Lady Flowerbody”, she intends “to use this community as a laboratory for testing my hypothesis about how our collective memories are actually our cultural capital … ” She is the embodiment of lazy, tautological bullshit with a purse full of recreational hash. “Let’s admit that things happen on both sides,” she says, as if to offer comfort, then calls her subjects unevolved. This Trumpian hypocrisy is eerie in the mouth of a character who represents western academia. Momo doesn’t buy into her “do-gooder’s trickery”. Many field scholars have come through bearing chocolate, squeezed him for details, instructed him in western strategies for managing his pain, then written books called The Way of the Nomad or And the Sands Wept and left him with nothing. “First they bomb us from the skies, then they work hard to cure our stress … I get PTSD, she gets a per diem in US dollars.”
Hanif’s observations of the camp are precise and hair-raising, and one forgives the accidental Britishisms that pepper Major Ellie’s speech (no American says “queue”, “gap year”, “rubbish”, “bin”, “tinned”, “cookery” or “takeaway”). Arriving at the camp, Ellie expects “orderly queues waiting to get their rations from gap-year students with dreadlocks and nose rings”. He sees instead a “sea of corrugated blue plastic roofs, stretching like a low, filthy sky, broken by piles of grey plastic poles and overflowing blue plastic rubbish bins. This is the kind of place where evil festers, Colonel Slatter had said. All I can see are failed attempts at starting kitchen gardens, neat squares marked with pebbles, half-grown stumps in little plastic pots.” He marvels that this ruined place can be seen as a threat to America, and though at first he soothes himself that he only ever followed orders and never actually bombed the camp, eventually he understands. “If I didn’t take out homes, who would provide shelter? If I didn’t obliterate cities, who would build refugee camps? … Where would all the world’s empathy go?”
Hanif is at his most entertaining when he is deep in the farce, and some characters are no more than that – Lady Flowerbody, or Momo’s Father Dear, the licker of white boots (“Who can say no to Americans?”). The true brutalities of war are shown in quick, moving strokes: a boy killed trying to remove the gun from an armoured car, Momo waiting up each night for his Mother Dear to stop crying. Hanif doesn’t linger on these scenes – they simply hit you now and then amid the slapstick. Most of them are relayed by Mutt, who shares the book’s narration with Ellie and Momo, and whose wisdom comes from his sense of smell, which extends to emotions and motivations. Fear smells like rotting apples, unrequited love like mustard. Regret is burnt bread. Tricks smell like onions and delusions like vinegar.
Like Hanif’s previous two novels, Red Birds is full of dark comedy and witty eviscerations of war and the singular way it draws out human ugliness. However, satire relies on a veneer of sincerity: the reader alone observes absurdities that the characters believe in and live by; the author doesn’t help out directly. In Red Birds, the insane internal logic that we might observe on our own is explained to us by the omniscient philosopher dog. Certainly Mutt’s voice is enjoyable, and he’d make an excellent essayist, but he is all high aphorism. “If you are cooperating with the people who destroy your houses, it can have tragic results,” he tells us, even as we’re seeing that plainly for ourselves. “The atrocities they have committed with the language,” he marvels. When he’s not living out some tragic slapstick, he says things like: “This is not how distribution of wealth works in post-war economies.” Once, he even discusses anthropomorphism, the way Ellie discusses Momo’s fake American accent.
But who said Hanif has to follow the mores of conventional western satire? Orhan Pamuk’s narrating horses and dogs, like most magical animals of old Persian and Greek literature, are self-referential and aphoristic, armed with an understanding vastly greater than the humans they serve. Hanif is dexterous and ambitious with the literary tools of both east and west. His characters careen toward a final confrontation wherein, per ancient tradition, the world goes up in a cloud of metaphor. Combine this with humour as cutting as Heller or Evelyn Waugh, as precise and modern as Sam Lipsyte or Wells Tower, and you have something wildly original. Momo’s is as fantastical a voice as Tower’s back-slapping, “grab-assing” Viking bros in his breakthrough story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”; the blending of styles across oceans and centuries is surprising and elegant.
Red Birds is an incisive, unsparing critique of war and of America’s role in the destruction of the Middle East. It combines modern and ancient farcical traditions in thrilling ways. It is the photo-negative of the many south Asian novels that appear each year, all succumbing to the well-worn trope of melancholy eastern-sounding language paired with western realism. How much more exciting to read a razor-tongued critique of US foreign policy, from a philosopher dog and a street-talking teenage refugee, both of whom sound as if they were born in New Jersey. And, after all the laughs, it ends with an appeal to the heart, made by the women of the novel to whom Hanif finally gives voice. All goes silent during the prayer of a grieving mother who “wants her son back. She wants to go to sleep watching him snore gently. She wants to pile more butter, more sugar, on his bread ... She wants to collect his shirts strewn on the floor and smell them before throwing them on the laundry pile.”