This is an extremely cheeky political satire that purports to look at the events leading up the death of General Zia, the man who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988, and a great target for satire in any case - he always struck me as what it would be like if Groucho Marx were to do a sketch about a military dictator. It alternates between an omniscient narrative that largely focuses on Zia and his premonitions of doom and various Zia insiders and associates, and the first-person narrative of Ali Shigri, a military cadet whose father, a general in the Intelligence Service, was assassinated, and who in turn seeks to assassinate Zia.
Hanif weaves together a complex chain of events, from the machinations of Shigri as well as members of Zia's cabinet, to the curse of a blind woman imprisoned on death row because she has been raped, the seasonal migrations of an ordinary black crow, crates of mangoes and more. In the process, he paints an irreverent and remarkably thorough picture of the complex Pakistani political landscape in the 80s, a landscape that continues to evolve on the same broad lines and is not lacking in interest to other inhabitants of the subcontinent, although possibly less so to people from other countries, irrespective of their governments' repeated and often misguided experiments in this region. There is a distinct difference in tone between the two threads, with Shigri's narrative being the more racy and cinematic, but at all points there is a deep vein of satire running through it all, and an irreverent spirit that makes me wonder at Hanif's failure to run afoul of fundamentalists. This may not be the Great Novel of modern Pakistan - perhaps it is both too arch and too informed by the thriller genre, and a little sloppily paced (lots of build-up, an over-quick resolution), but in my opinion it's a superb political satire, a witty and engrossing novel and certainly superior to several, more succesful, subcontinental offerings from the same year.