By Mohammed Hanif
Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, June 15, 2012
We need to talk about Alice. Alice, with her black hair and big mouth. With her beautiful body and poor impulse control. Alice, criminal and savior, the victim and heroine of “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti,” a deft, evil little novel of comic genius by Mohammed Hanif, author of the prizewinning “Case of Exploding Mangoes.”
Fresh out of prison and despite formidable odds, Alice Bhatti, a Catholic nurse in present-day Pakistan, has wrangled a job at Karachi’s Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, a cesspit of gangrene and incompetence. The “delivery room is a gambling den,” the head nurse says. “Everyone comes out a loser.” The maternity ward itself goes by the grim sobriquet “baby slaughterhouse.”
But there’s something about Alice. She possesses unnerving gifts: mysterious healing powers and the ability to predict how you will die. She works miracles, is beloved by the residents of the psychiatric ward, but nothing, not even her supernatural skill set, can stem the tide of the dead women:
“There was not a single day — not a single day — when she didn’t see a woman shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive. Suspicious husband, brother protecting his honor, father protecting his honor, son protecting his honor, jilted lover avenging his honor, feuding farmers settling their water disputes, moneylenders collecting their interest: most of life’s arguments, it seemed, got settled by doing various things to a woman’s body.”
“A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” Hanif’s first novel, drew favorable comparisons to “Catch-22” — both are stinging sendups of life in the air forces, but the similarities run deeper. Like Joseph Heller, Hanif specializes in a kind of horror and humor joined at the root. Stripped of the slapstick and magic realist special effects, “Alice Bhatti” is a blistering broadside on the socially sanctioned butchery of women and girls in Pakistan. It’s an abecedary of how women are hunted, how they’re choked and chopped up and thrown away. It’s an attempt to understand and render, with varying degrees of success, what life is like under siege from the world’s oldest, most deadly kind of terrorism. “Cutting up women is a sport older than cricket but just as popular and equally full of obscure rituals and intricate rules,” Hanif writes.
Alice’s body is a battleground under constant assault by “lewd gestures, whispered suggestions, uninvited hands on her bottom.” In every scene but one, someone is ogling her, poking or prodding or hurting her. And oddly enough, the author joins the ranks of those who can’t get enough of her considerable charms: “Alice’s body is one of those miracles of malnourishment, which has resulted in a thin, brittle bone structure with overgrown breasts,” Hanif writes. Alice Bhatti’s breasts, once conjured, are ubiquitous, and they inspire some terrible, slavering similes. They are “like Persian cantaloupes that only grow in the desert and die if it rains more than once every season.” They are observed — and again, these are breasts, mind you — “cuddling themselves, like two abandoned puppies confusing each other for their mother.”
But hang on. Didn’t I refer to this book as a work of “comic genius”? It is, these breast-related infelicities aside. Hanif is Andrea Dworkin-earnest on the topic of violence against women, but everything else is fair game. He’s a punisher in the style of Yahweh, Flannery O’Connor and Muriel Spark; he’s a moralist trussed up as torturer (or is it the other way around?), with a taste for making his creations twitch. No one emerges unscathed. Eyes are popped out of sockets, penises are slashed, flies tiptoe into the open mouths of sleeping women. Wild dogs give chase; flower pots are put to highly unorthodox uses.
But while Yahweh’s and O’Connor’s poor sods are at least allowed the dignity to be proper sinners, Hanif’s lunks lack imagination and agency. They behave badly out of sheer stupidity or on instruction. But, bless them, they are lovable goons.
Take Teddy Butt, a dim bodybuilder and the improbable romantic lead. He does dirty work for a ragtag law enforcement group of cops, thugs and reformed (they claim) rapists calling itself the Gentlemen’s Squad. When the squad has killing to do, it’s Teddy Butt who sits with and soothes the men before their executions. We all have to be good at something.
Teddy lurks around Sacred Heart, mooning after Alice, feigning ailments to see her. When he finally gets up the nerve to confess his feelings, he decides to bring his gun along. It might send the wrong message, but he always feels better with his Mauser in his hand. He ambushes Alice as she’s leaving a patient’s room, holding a steaming bedpan. Wild-eyed and brandishing his gun, our Romeo chooses to open with: “I go through your garbage bin. I know everything about you.” To prove the purity of his affection, he waves the Mauser at her chest and shrieks, “When I think about you, do I think about these milk jugs?” He reassures her, “I think of your eyes only.”
The comic ante is raised by another unlikely duo in the ward. In the corner, a double amputee, poring over X-rays as if they were old family photos, is suddenly set upon by a large bird of prey. As Teddy harangues Alice, the amputee does heroic battle with the bird, defending himself with the X-rays of his missing legs. It’s a masterly little moment, antic and affecting, the kind Hanif nails scene after scene. (And reader, she marries him. Alice marries the bodybuilder, and together, they form one of modern fiction’s most unlikely and — for a time — truly contented pairs.)
At its best, “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” isn’t amusing or entertaining or anything so mealy-mouthed. It’s belly-laugh-inducing. Sam Lipsyte funny. “Fawlty Towers” funny. The silliness is anarchic and profound. Hanif will heckle himself given half the chance. Here he is on love: “It’s futile to predict what love will make of you, but sometimes it brings you things you never knew you wanted. One moment all you want is a warm shower, and the next you are offering your lover your chest to urinate on.” But of course, there’s something deadly serious at work too. Hanif’s Karachi is the veritable definition of anarchy. Humorists are just trying to keep up.
In an essay on the comic novel, Howard Jacobson wrote, “The greatest comic novels give the impression of starting on a whim and heading for they don’t know where.” So it is with “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.” It gambols along like one of its goons, from humiliation to blood bath and back again. It lacks the fastidious plotting and narrative neatness of “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” — and it’s better for it. It’s a loose, loping creature, less anxious about being a Novel, more interested in telling a ripping story.
And will this story — and grisly Sacred Heart — be taken as a parable for Pakistan? One hopes not. Mohammed Hanif’s criticisms are pointed and specific. He is unflinching on the abuse of women and religious minorities. But the world of “Alice Bhatti” is too rangy, too much its own perfectly realized universe to be stunted into stale allegory. It’s a rowdy piece of art; its concerns are local and universal. We’re all implicated. Sacred Heart, c’est nous. And we’re all terminal cases.