BookBrowse Reviews Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif

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Red Birds

by Mohammed Hanif

Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif X
Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif
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    May 2019, 304 pages

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Naomi Benaron
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An American fighter pilot crash-lands into a desert refugee camp in this wonderfully strange exploration of the effects of war on civilians.

Mohmmed Hanif's Red Birds is part Catch-22, part Slaughterhouse-Five, part Kafka's The Castle, and all Hanif's darkly satirical wit and wildly creative imagination. Set against the backdrop of a slice of unnamed desert that could be located in any number of regions, including the northern reaches of the author's native country of Pakistan, it has all the ingredients of a war story, an unflinching exposure of the dire human consequences, and even a sprinkling of magical realism. It's the story of what happens when the war machine collides with innocent civilians.

The book begins with an American fighter pilot, Major Ellie, crashing in the desert after a failed attempt to bomb a refugee camp, "at the end of the world, [a] hideout for some of the worst human scum." The pilot has an undistinguished military career, and this mission was meant to give him the recognition he needed to advance, but the crash puts an end to that. After wandering for eight days in the desert with no food or water, he finds half of his plane: "So this is what I have; the front half of an F15 Strike Eagle with two 500-pound laser-guided bombs, one marked YES, the other marked OH YESS in grey stenciled letters." Major Ellie is rescued by Momo, a young boy from the camp he was supposed to bomb, and there begins a convoluted chess game between the camp inhabitants and the American.

The camp to which Momo takes Major Ellie, referred to simply as "the Camp," is a desolate structure attached to a deserted U.S. airbase. It lies behind a large gate attached to nothing on either side. On the top of the gate is written "USAID FUGEE CAMP," the "RE" having disappeared. Ellie describes it as, "a sea of corrugated blue plastic roofs, stretching like a low, filthy sky, broken by piles of grey plastic poles and overflowing blue plastic garbage cans." And yet, people live here, people who, as Ellie says, "had not left their little hamlets for centuries, goatherds who believed in nothing but grassy fields and folk music, women who had never walked beyond the village well, now they could all go and live in UN tents, eat exotic food donated by USAID and burp after drinking soda."

For the first two parts of this three-part novel, there are three narrators: Major Ellie, Momo, and a dog named Mutt. Momo is a 15-year-old boy who considers himself an entrepreneur. "The sky itself could fall," he says, "and I'm gonna stay right here; I would figure out a way to turn it into part of my business portfolio." He gets his education from Fortune 500 and drives a Jeep Cherokee for which he needs a cushion to see out of the windshield. A child who for most of his life has known only war, he is not a character to be pitied; he has learned to take advantage of his situation and wrest from it every possible scrap of control. "You can't be a child in this place for long," he says. "Blame it on the heat, or buffalo milk, or camp food but you are expected to grow up fast."

Momo's beloved brother, Bro Ali, has disappeared. One day, he went to work in the mysterious "Hangar" and never returned. The Hangar is part of the U.S. base adjacent to the Camp and is reminiscent of Kafka's Castle as a seat of shrouded and nefarious power. When he finds Major Ellie, Momo believes he is the key to locating his brother.

The only reliable narrator in Red Birds is Mutt, a dog whose brains were "fried" in an unfortunate encounter with a poorly installed electrical pole. Mutt is a philosopher and a keen observer of human nature, keeping a close eye on the Camp inhabitants and their goings on. With his canine sense of smell, Mutt relates to the world through his nose. White people smell like boiled cabbage; "Indifference smells like the bleached bones of your fellow dog;" "Regret smells like burnt bread."

Initially, Hanif resisted including a canine narrator, but in the end, he decided to let the dog speak. "He started to connect lots of things, which I hadn't been able to connect before," Hanif told Qantara.de's Claudia Kramatschek. It is Mutt who first sees and explains the 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, when we think we have forgotten them..."

Hanif began Red Birds after a series of personal losses; the epigraph is a quote from his close friend Sabeen Mahmud, a Pakistani human rights activist who was assassinated in 2015 following a reading she staged of Hanif's politically sensitive work. Perhaps Mutt's voice is the bridge between the novel and Hanif's own feelings of grief. "I don't think I or any of my colleagues have recovered from that shot," he told The Guardian.

Although Red Birds clearly addresses the consequences of wars waged by Western powers largely ignorant of the mores of the people they target, it is also a story of home and loss. "I … wanted to describe the inner dynamics of a family that has been forgotten by the world – and in which one of the two sons disappears without a trace," Hanif told Qantra.de. Much of that grief is expressed through the character of Mother Dear, Momo and Ali's mother. "First they bomb our house," she tells a USAID consultant she nicknames Lady FlowerBody because of the strong floral perfume she wears, "then they take away my son and now you are here to make us feel alright." Like so many caught in war's crosshairs, she must simultaneously mourn a son, seek closure and keep her hope alive against all odds.

As the story progresses, it becomes increasing surreal and unsettling. The reader is never quite sure where she stands, like someone blindfolded groping their way along a strangely shaped passage. It gives the very slightest taste, one imagines, of the uncertainty of a war zone, and that taste is what Hanif wanted to accomplish. "Sometimes I feel these are not words," he told The Hindu, "these are tears of blood. I am not joking."

Reviewed by Naomi Benaron

This review is from the Red Birds. It first ran in the June 19, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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