Charlotte Grimshaw reviews Red Birds by Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 03 November, 2018
Surreal finale: Mohammed Hanif. Photo/Alamy

Surreal finale: Mohammed Hanif. Photo/Alamy

RelatedArticlesModule - Red birds Mohammed Hanif

Tragicomedy arises in tale of a downed pilot living with those he was meant to bomb.

Mohammed Hanif was a pilot in the Pakistani Air Force before leaving to become a journalist and author of successful novels, including the bestselling A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book.

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.

Latest

Prepare for a return to the 'old normal' of sharemarket volatility
100287 2018-12-18 00:00:00Z Investment

Prepare for a return to the 'old normal' of sharem…

by Pattrick Smellie

In the decade since the global financial crisis, investors have enjoyed a steady upward ride and very few shocks.

Read more
Is cryptocurrency a haven from market volatility?
100307 2018-12-18 00:00:00Z Investment

Is cryptocurrency a haven from market volatility?

by Nikki Mandow

It’s been a wild ride for cryptocurrencies over the past year, but can they become a stable store of wealth for investors?

Read more
Stop your new build from feeling cookie-cutter with these clever solutions
100101 2018-12-18 00:00:00Z Property

Stop your new build from feeling cookie-cutter wit…

by Noted

Building a new home but want something unique? These creative solutions prove new-builds and personality do go together.

Read more
Dumplings with Wings is the new place to get your dumpling fix
100543 2018-12-17 15:39:32Z Auckland Eats

Dumplings with Wings is the new place to get your …

by Alex Blackwood

Dumplings with Wings' colourful creations take cues from all over the world.

Read more
The Children Act doesn't do justice to Ian McEwan's novel
100520 2018-12-17 11:27:11Z Movies

The Children Act doesn't do justice to Ian McEwan'…

by James Robins

Emma Thompson may be on the bench but legal drama The Children Act is yet another example of the limits of literary adaptation.

Read more
After a testing year, can Simon Bridges survive 2019?
100499 2018-12-17 08:57:04Z Politics

After a testing year, can Simon Bridges survive 20…

by Jane Patterson

Simon Bridges has held on to the National Party leadership as a testing year ends, but how secure is his position? He says he's not worried.

Read more
Capital offences: A grammarian on nouns proper and common
99726 2018-12-17 00:00:00Z Education

Capital offences: A grammarian on nouns proper and…

by Ray Prebble

A look at the nuances of nouns.

Read more
Two small South Island towns' annual clash for the Cup o' Wood
99541 2018-12-17 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Two small South Island towns' annual clash for the…

by Mike White

For 70 years, neighbouring Central Otago villages St Bathans and Becks have taken to the rugby field to battle for the Wooden Cup.

Read more