Twenty years ago, a Pakistani military plane crashed under very shady circumstances, killing everyone on board, including the Generalissimo who had been running the county ever since the coup that deposed Zulfikar Bhutto. For most Westerners, this is one of those distant footnotes to history, barely remembered, if at all. However, one of the other passengers on that plane was a friend of my parents, making the episode one of those mysteries that's always stuck with me through the years. It's also one of those events that's acquired a rather robust mythology and body of conspiracy theories around it -- making it great fodder for a first novel.
The story starts several weeks before the crash, and introduces us to the soon-to-be-dead General Zia and his close associates, as well as to a pair of Pakistani Air Force cadets (one of whom is the main narrator), the U.S. Ambassador, a CIA agent, and a whole host of lesser characters (including, in a very brief but historically plausible cameo, Osama Bin Laden). Despite the relatively large cast of characters, almost all spring to life with remarkable vitality. From the barracks laundryman "Uncle Starchy," to an imprisoned enemy of the state (the head of the All Pakistan Street Cleaners Union), to General Zia's paratrooper bodyguard, and many others. This is no small achievement, and a vitally important one for a plot that brings together so many disparate motives and agendas.
Indeed, the plot is too complicated to fully describe, but basically General Zia has grown increasingly paranoid, and rightfully so, as a number of different people want him dead. To mention who or how or why would be to spoil the fun, suffice to say that the story focuses on two particularly devious plots, while other possibilities materialize out of carefully calibrated subplots. So, in a sense, this is a thriller -- even though the results are already known. However, it's also a black comedy in which the author has drawn deeply on his own experience as a Pakistani Air Force cadet in order to create a rich satire of the Pakistani military. Furthermore, the author's years as a journalist makes him particularly well-suited to aim his satire at the men of state, their machinations, and those good old days when the U.S. was funding the Afghan resistance to the Soviets. While a lot of this history is so tragic and inept you have to laugh, Hanif has the writing skills to create some moments of real comedy and fine wordplay as well.
The last several years has seen a resurgence of interest in this era, in books such as Steve Coll's excellent Ghost Wars or George Crile's Charley Wilson's War. Coll also wrote a much earlier book called On the Grand Trunk Road, based on his years as the South Asia correspondent for the Washington Post, which has a 25 page chapter devoted to his investigation of the crash. It's nice to be able to get some perspective from the Pakistani side, albeit in fictional form.