Red Birds is a polyphonic and frenzied dream that often turns into a nightmare. It is the story of a landscape that is all sand — a place where the terrible has already happened.
The novel – Mohammed Hanif’s third and perhaps most ambitious work of fiction so far – begins with Major Ellie, a bombardier in the United States air force who has crashed his plane in an unnamed desert in an unnamed country. Here is a lost man confronted by devilish mirages, death and, far worse, the very people he was sent to kill, but Hanif’s signature humour – electric and wry – turns the tragic into the banal. “They give you a 65-million-dollar machine to fly,” Ellie muses, “with the smartest bomb that some beam rider in Salt Lake City took years to design, you burn fuel at the rate of fifteen gallons per second and if you get screwed they expect you to survive on four energy biscuits and an organic smoothie.”
After days of wandering in the desert, Ellie stumbles upon a refugee camp that he was sent to bomb. It is nothing like the neat and orderly place that he imagined it to be from his training. It is, instead, a desolate settlement once set up by the United States Agency for International Development but now abandoned by it. “The camp is a sea of corrugated blue plastic roofs, stretching like a low, filthy sky, broken by piles of grey plastic poles and overflowing blue plastic rubbish bins,” is how Hanif describes it. The place clearly shows what a war’s real and apocalyptic fallout could be.
Ellie meets a ragtag team of other characters at the camp. “This place may look poorer than Afghanistan,” one of them remarks, “and more violent than Sudan.” But there is no knowing why it is so and why the Americans want to destroy the camp. “[...] thank God there is no ideology at stake. Not for them, not for us,” says the same character and then breaks the whole conflict down to its most absurd causes and effects. “We steal from them because that’s all we can do. They take our boys because they think that’s all we have. And to lure the boys they sent out their tallest soldiers, their shiniest vehicles.”
Central to the narrative is Momo, a self-proclaimed entrepreneur in his teen years who drives a jeep abandoned by some United Nations officials and is always on the lookout to turn desperation into profit. (He, for instance, devises a scheme called Sands Glob to sell sand to construction companies.) A quiet hatred simmers under the devil-may-care surface of his personality. “They bomb us because they assume we are related to bad Arabs,” he tells Ellie.
Momo’s older sibling, Ali Bro, is missing. His disappearance is a perpetual thorn in Momo’s side and a permanent splinter in their mother’s heart. No one quite knows where or how he went but there is some reason to believe that their father “sold” him to the Americans. Then there are Momo’s parents – Father Dear and Mother Dear – and an aid consultant with a strange name, Lady Flowerbody, that contrasts sharply with the arid landscape of the camp. She is writing her PhD thesis on the “Teenage Muslim Mind” and hopes to turn her research into a book that will have an apt title: “The Children of the Desert.”
But perhaps the most memorable resident of the refugee camp is Momo’s dog Mutt, a hard-living anthropomorphic animal with the twin abilities to think and to articulate his thoughts in speech. Like an irreverent philosopher, he critiques all other characters and reveals their hidden, internal lives. From his unique vantage point as both a beloved pet and an outsider, Mutt has seen others at their worst and finest moments. Since he is often, both figuratively and literally, at the periphery of the human drama around him, he knows and understands things that no one else does. “Whenever I hear the word ‘care’ or ‘compassion’ on Momo’s lips,” he says at one stage, “I can see dollar signs in his eyes.”
Mutt is the first to see the novel’s eponymous red birds. They emerge from the last drop of blood from yet another casualty of war and symbolise the metamorphosis of a world that was unlivable to begin with, into something totally hellish. Mutt does not tell Momo about the birds because he is scared that the boy will try to sell them as well. “Imagine the red birds fluttering in gilded cages. Imagine your most private grief as a party decoration,” remarks the dog.
The novel is narrated in the first-person, predominantly through the voices of Ellie, Mutt and Momo. Mutt, with his “fried brains”, has a lyrical quality to his voice. His is the wisdom, both mangy and irrefutable. “If a boy can care for a stray injured bird, that boy might one day learn to care for his long-suffering mother as well,” he once proclaims.
Mutt, indeed, sounds like an omniscient, all knowing bard and is the moral centre and beating heart of the story. When Momo accuses him of stealing, Mutt reasons that he takes only what he needs: “I don’t own safe houses and lockers, I don’t borrow and I don’t lend. Do I have a godown full of bones somewhere?”
This could well be a comment on how human greed has caused countless conflicts across time and space. And perhaps this is what Hanif wants his readers to realise.
With a voice both gritty and cerebral, he underscores the absurdity of war and the frailty of being human in a violent world. When Ellie is confronted by the horrors of war in person, he realises that “on paper your flying jacket is also fireproof but the papers don’t tell you it can’t protect your eyes from melting in their sockets”. Sometimes the writer makes the most searing of his indictments in the quietest of voices, such as when Momo looks at his father and thinks: “He has spent a lifetime clearing his throat only to realise that he has nothing to say.”
For Ellie, one of the consequences of being lost in the desert is the unexpected realisation that he misses Cath, his wife. It is unexpected because the two have drifted apart due to childlessness, her depression and his work. “She knew me and I miss her knowing me,” he admits. It is in our weakest moments that we have the strongest of our regrets, the writer seems to say through Ellie. “We were petty to each other in life. In death we can be magnanimous. I’ll never be magnanimous. I’ll never miss her again. I’ll never be scolded again; all will be oblivion soon.”
Hanif is at his most poignant when he talks about what it means to be human in a perilously inhuman world. He makes it abundantly clear how wholesale destruction ironically offers a source of penance to those who wreak it in the first place. “If I didn’t take out homes,” Ellie asks, “who would provide shelter? If I didn’t obliterate cities, who would build refugee camps? Where would all the world’s empathy go?” In this unflinching examination, Hanif places suffering squarely in a realm where hubris and love must live side by side and where the comic and the tragic are two sides of the same coin.
The writer is an author and poet whose work has appeared in international publications such as Ploughshares and Granta.
This article was originally published in the Herald's December 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.