Lines like that are part of the atmosphere of darkly comic war novels, which need bitter irony like horror stories need creaking floorboards. It’s a tool that Hanif, who left the Pakistan Air Force Academy to pursue a writing career, knows well and uses often. As a result, “Red Birds” is a piercingly laugh-out-loud novel in a genre that doesn’t often abide comedy. But Hanif pushes his narrative beyond mere irony, expanding his critique of America’s military interventions to include satire, ghost stories and absurdist touches — up to and including a canine narrator that’s usually smarter than any human in the room.
The caustic fighter pilot is Ellie, whose plane crashes while on a mission to obliterate a refugee camp that he’s told is a “hideout for some of the worst human scum.” After more than a week hiking through the desert, he discovers that the refugee camp isn’t as inhospitable as he’s been warned. (Though everybody’s so chatty at first that they forget to feed him.) In fact, the Muslim family that takes Ellie in had worked closely with the Americans who were occupying a nearby hangar before they abandoned it. And gone with the Americans is the family’s eldest son, Ali. While Ali’s parents bemoan their sense of loss and betrayal, his younger brother, 15-year-old Momo, is determined to make the most of his predicament and become an American-style mogul. He’s equipped with copies of Fortune and Cosmo to guide him through Western culture, and MBA school it isn’t: His ideas include a “Scorpion Racing Circuit” and “Falcons for Ethical Hunting.”
In the novel’s early going, the narration alternates between Ellie, Momo, and Momo’s dog, Mutt, whose sophisticated consciousness was perhaps acquired by a misadventure with a power line. Momo can go toe-to-toe with Ellie when it comes to sardonic observations, especially when it comes to foreign aid workers. (“First they bomb us from the skies, then they work hard to cure our stress.”) Mutt is equally observant but blessed with a lack of human foible, which allows him to see through both American military rhetoric and Momo’s nonsense. Considering the financial viability of Momo’s schemes, he muses, “This is not how distribution of wealth works in post-war economies.” Good dog.
And Mutt sees something more: the red birds of the novel’s title, the war dead transmogrified. “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,” Mutt observes. Something magical, or proof that “Mutt’s brains are fried,” as Momo believes? The more valuable point for Hanif is how many people miss the birds. The humans in this conflict all seem to be incapable of seeing each other plainly; each is shaped by greed, poverty, loss, military orders, in ways that blinker them to the human suffering around them.
Hanif’s deftness at this kind of seriocomic storytelling has often, almost reflexively now, gotten him compared to Joseph Heller. His 2008 debut, “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” used the suspicious death of Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, the former president of Pakistan, to satirize the Pakistan military; his 2011 follow-up, “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti,” did much the same for the country’s social and gender norms. But Hanif seems to understand that a novel like “Catch-22” is just one point in a throughline about how a novelist can address war. Think of how World War II fiction emerged first as sober feats of realism like “The Naked and the Dead” before embracing “Catch”-style comedy; later come more provocative, absurdist feats like “Gravity’s Rainbow,” talking lightbulbs and all.
Nearly two decades after 9/11, we’re entering the talking-light bulb era of Middle East war fiction, where novelists are more comfortable with flights of fancy amid the social critique. (Consider Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West,” with its peculiar portals and sense of time, or Ahmed Saadawi’s neo-gothic “Frankenstein in Baghdad.”) In the closing sections of “Red Birds,” as Ellie and the family approach the abandoned hangar to determine Ali’s fate, Hanif lavishly complicates the story, adding more narrators and giving the milieu the surrealistic, haunting feel of a ghost tale.
There’s no question that the central target of Hanif’s satire is the American military and its various missteps in the Middle East. But because the location of “Red Birds” is unnamed, his satire is more powerfully universal, pulling in a whole complex of refugees, aid workers and more who’ve been forced to live with the absurd consequences of war culture. In time, Momo gets a little smarter about what’s going to make him money. His enlightenment, like the novel as a whole, is at once witty and crushing. “I am always gonna support the free market,” he says, “but am gonna stay away from the drug trade because let’s not forget that there is way more money in weapons and oil and do-goodery and it’s all legal.”
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.
Grove Press/Black Cat, 304 pp., Paperback, $16