The author of the Man Booker-longlisted A Case of Exploding Mangoes and follow-up Our Lady of Alice Bhatti has always operated in the space where the ridiculous and the profound overlap, and Red Birds is similarly irreverent, dripping with exuberant disdain for the way in which western power has corrupted the world... But for all these acutely observed insights, Red Birds’ narrative is marginally less effective than in Hanif’s previous books. There is plenty of pleasure to be had in Momo’s anarchic journey to find his brother, or in Mutt’s canine slapstick, but the shift towards a figurative world in the final third doesn’t entirely satisfy. While the nods to purgatory work in and of themselves as a paean to the missing and forgotten in war, the ghostly chaos and additional chorus of indistinct voices overpowers the book’s careful set-up... Red Birds doesn’t always soar, but it’s an effective satire that reminds us that everybody – refugees, distraught mothers, unthinking airmen, well-meaning aid workers, dogs and ghosts – has a need to love, and be loved.
The pace is fast at the micro level but ponderous overall. Jokes that raise a smile the first time round are repeated again and again (the Teenage Muslim Minds crack, for example) until they are no longer funny. Sometimes Hanif seems to give up writing fiction altogether, simply channelling his righteous anger through his characters: Momo says he is living through "the most useless war in the history of wars"... I can't help feeling that the weight of this book's subject has overwhelmed Hanif. For all its sharp barbs and cutting one-liners, Red Birds never takes full flight.
Hanif’s satirical wit is viewed as one of his strengths. Yet it limits his work. One-liners provide instant gratification, but sometimes leave little room for depth. The elusive hangar is described by Momo as “the kind of place where runaway car thieves stop to buy coke and burgers and then, seeing the place is run by an old woman, decide to rob it”. Similarly, the novel’s many red bird variations – red insects, “Roving Angels”, migratory cranes, a kite with broken wings and spirits hovering inside the hangar – in the end amount to little more than vivid imagery. Hanif’s clever punchlines work in the op-eds he writes for the New York Times, but in a novel they become predictable.
It is hard not to like a talking dog, and he is by far the most engaging character in this at times galumphing satire, about America’s role in the Middle East, which features Hanif’s trademark blend of wacky and bloody... As in the Vietnam War, where bombs were followed by candy and “hearts-and-minds” operations, so (in the words of Major Ellie) the endless present conflicts are essentially “carpet-bombing followed by dry rations and craft classes for the refugees”. Hanif’s chapters are narrated by each character in turn and the most articulate voice belongs to Mutt. The treatment is defiantly unrealistic, particularly when the dead start to speak and red birds, visible only to Mutt, are composed of flying blood, but the outrage is all too real.
The balance between the realistic and fantastical elements is essential to the novel’s tone, but it also prevents Red Birds from ever fully cohering as a fictional narrative... the book’s best passages rest on acute observation, albeit of a comically exaggerated kind... The further the novel veers away from this empirical territory, the shakier it gets. The prose is littered with weird non sequiturs; at one point Mutt states that ‘tricks smell like onions’, which is nonsense in either canine or human thought... Hanif’s authorial gifts are undeniable and Red Birds is written with ambition and powerful satirical anger. While the novel never quite comes together, perhaps this is an unavoidable result of the endless multiplicity of the world Hanif wants to show us, and his refusal to sacrifice that complexity for the sake of narrative coherence.
Deploying a relentlessly grim gallows humour, Hanif skewers the entrenched insanity of a conflict in which occupying powers send therapists into a war zone largely of their own making to understand ‘the teenage Muslim mind’, but plays, I think disastrously, with reality itself, as events take on the hallucinatory untrustworthiness of a desert mirage... Hanif’s bleak, formidable use of irony burns deeply, but the novel is also, alas, a bit of a shaggy-dog story.