None of this, we understand, counts as a betrayal of his expectations.
“Say hi to Major Ellie,” he introduces himself. “My whole C.V. could fit onto two lines: one man, 637 missions, a few thousand tons of the finest explosives deposited in some of the world’s most evil places. Some hits. Some misses. Current status: lost.”
Ellie is dupe, villain and victim in Mohammed Hanif’s “Red Birds,” which depicts a universe populated exclusively by the dupes, villains and victims of America’s forever war, along with a few charlatans, people driven mad by grief and, to my great unhappiness, one talking dog (talking animals are up there with precocious children in my annals of literary sins).
It is the bleakest, most mournful book by an author celebrated for his barbed tongue and high silliness. A former fighter pilot with the Pakistani army and longtime BBC correspondent, Hanif made his name with his Joseph Heller-influenced burlesques about the horrors and hypocrisies of war. “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” (2008), shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, lampooned the assassinated Pakistani president, Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, lavishing upon him, among other humiliations, a spectacular case of anal worms. In “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” (2012), Hanif excoriated violence against women — “a sport older than cricket but just as popular” — but with slapstick instead of sanctimony. (Hanif is also a contributing opinion writer for The Times.)
With “Red Birds,” he explores the entanglement of aid agencies and the war machine. Ellie is taken in by the refugee camp he intended to bomb, in an unnamed country. He becomes the casual captive of a teenager named Momo, who hopes to use him to recover his brother, Ali, who has gone missing — perhaps sold to the Americans. The moral center of the book is Momo’s very depressed and philosophical dog, Mutt, who has a broken leg, a brain fried from a near-fatal electrocution and the ability to sense the ghosts circling the camp.
Hanif’s writing has always been anchored in Pakistan, and in a very Punjabi sense of humor. Here it floats free, leached of color and all local detail. For the first time he plays with parable — and what an exciting departure it might have been.
Instead, we get an alarmingly sloppy and choppy ghost story. The Americans sound incongruously British. There are welters of pronoun confusion, and the pacing is all wrong. There’s a bog of exposition to wade through at the beginning, and when Ellie and Momo finally meet, the story picks up for a page only to shudder to a halt. These characters don’t speak to one another; instead, in rotating monologues, they soliloquize, each making the same point repeatedly: Ellie reflects on the endlessness of the forever wars, Momo dreams of money, Mutt philosophizes. When a moment of climax arrives (the only real plot point) and the characters storm an abandoned hangar, rather than escalation or revelation, we get chaos, a supernatural flurry of action. This isn’t a spoiler. Trust that I have no idea what happens — flapping wings and much shouting were all I could register.
Criminally — for such a savagely funny writer — the jokes don’t land. The worst lines belong to the benighted Mutt, who ought to have suffered enough: “Paw on my heart,” he is forced to say. “Woof off.” Gladly.
The Hanif I remember comes to life in his social critiques. “If I didn’t bomb some place, how would she save that place?” Ellie says of an American development worker at the camp. “Make them orphans, then adopt them, that’s how the world goes.” These electric observations are all too infrequent, however, and they can’t enliven a narration that always returns to characters parroting their few key points.
What’s gone wrong here? When a writer this conspicuously talented makes so many elementary, inexplicable errors — and, more seriously, when he jettisons his style, his moves — something is happening, something that merits not censure but a closer look. A painful transformation is afoot.
Wrestling with the novel, I began to feel I was reading less a document about trauma than a document of trauma. The story is weirdly repetitive. Characters reintroduce themselves to us every time they appear, unnecessarily reminding us of their particulars. The narration is listless until it turns furious and then it collapses, lost and weary. The book behaves like a grieving person.
From the first page, there’s an intimation that the novel is animated, in part, by private sorrow. In 2013, Hanif wrote a nonfiction book about the enforced disappearances in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, “The Baloch Who Is Not Missing Anymore and Others Who Are,” published by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. In 2015, his friend, the human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud, held an event on the disappearances at her community space in Karachi. She was killed on her way home. “I don’t think I or any of my colleagues have recovered from that shot,” Hanif has said. Mahmud supplies one of the epigraphs to “Red Birds” — a little line asking the audience to silence their phones, presumably before the gathering that night.
Hanif made his name writing some of the boldest satire of his generation. What happens when satire begins to seem like a statement of impotence, when it loses its power to shame? What lies beyond it? And what happens to a writer when he recognizes the limitations of his favorite form? This novel isn’t riddled with mere flaws but heartbreak.
“I think the novel is set in a war-torn, devastated, half-forgotten place,” Hanif said in a recent interview. “That place is my head.”
By Mohammed Hanif
283 pages. Black Cat. $16.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.