Charlotte Grimshaw reviews Red Birds by Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanifby Charlotte Grimshaw
Tragicomedy arises in tale of a downed pilot living with those he was meant to bomb.
His new novel, Red Birds, is set in a bleak refugee camp in the desert. Major Ellie, an American fighter pilot, has crash-landed outside the settlement. Roaming inside the camp is 15-year-old Momo, a fearless entrepreneur whose talents are wasted in the grim, wartime environment. Momo’s companion Mutt, a sarcastic, rueful and likeable dog, suffers an injustice at Momo’s hands and slinks off into the desert, hoping that his young master will repent and come to his rescue. When Momo finally goes in search of Mutt, he finds the American, too, and Major Ellie ends up living with the very people he was sent to bomb.
Momo’s parents have lost their beloved first-born son, Ali, who disappeared after his father got him a job working for the Americans. As Momo puts it, his father “sold” his brother to the foreigners. Other local boys have gone missing, too.
With no school to attend, Momo has been “forced to take on the responsibility of running the household; drying Mother Dear’s tears, pressing Father Dear’s pants”. Into their grief-stricken home comes Lady Flowerbody, a fragrant aid worker, whose PhD is on the teenage Muslim mind, and who wants to study Momo as part of her research project. This is a deadpan comedy that breaks at moments into a kind of savage lament. Major Ellie reflects, of Lady Flowerbody, “If I didn’t bomb some place, how would she save that place? If I didn’t rain fire from the skies, who would need her to douse that fire on the ground? … If I didn’t destroy, who would rebuild? Where would all the world’s empathy go?”
While Momo schemes, wondering how to become rich and seduce Lady Flowerbody, Major Ellie daydreams about his argumentative wife, Cath, back home, and Mutt philosophically observes the irrational behaviour of his owners.
Mother Dear shouts at Father Dear, curses the presence of Lady Flowerbody and hurls her slippers at Mutt. Family, Major Ellie reflects, is “the most f---ed up country”. He tells Momo, “If Pakistan screwed Afghanistan and USA was the midwife you’d get a country called FAMILY.”
This is not a novel for readers who prefer a neat and cheerful plot resolution, or answers to questions raised. Doom hangs over the settlement, and the desert is full of the wandering dead. Hanif whirls Momo and his family into a surreal finale, the narrative disintegrating in a chaos of ghosts and dust and craziness.
The dog, Mutt, has his own take on human violence and folly. He sees red birds: “When someone dies in a raid or a shooting or when someone’s throat is slit, their last drop of blood transforms into a tiny red bird and flies away. And then reappears when we are trying hard to forget them …”
People don’t want to see red birds, Mutt says, because if they do, they’ll remember. With memory comes understanding, the making of meaning.
The insanity of war repeats itself, he implies, because humans don’t learn, they just blindly soldier on.
RED BIRDS, by Mohammed Hanif (Bloomsbury, $32.99)
This article was first published in the October 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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