The Trickster Narrator: Genre without a Name

Fifty pages from the end, and he’s still got me guessing. The narrator is up to something, but I don’t know what. What I do know is that this is my favorite new kind of novel – a rascal narrator playing with my mind as he tells me his story. They’re perfect for book groups. Everyone loves picking apart a schemer. Everyone loves sharing dirt on someone who’s told you a lie. I just don’t know what to call novels like this. The genre doesn’t have a name.

Case of Exploding Mangoes  Junior Officer Ali Shigri, imprisoned, degraded, tortured, yet somehow resilient, is the untrustworthy narrator of Mohammed Hanif’s dry new military black comedy, A Case of Exploding Mangoes. He’s telling you the true account of the death in 1988 of General Zia, sixty-three-year-old dictator of Pakistan, along with eight of his top generals in a freak aeroplane accident four miles from take-off. Shigri should know all about it. He’s the only man who stepped aboard that plane who is now alive.

Just how that can possibly be true we don’t know yet. It’s not that Shigri lies. He just leaves things out. He’s got a secret agenda, and every once in a while we get a startling glimpse of another reality operating under the surface – as when Shigri and his roommate are suddenly accused of having sex together.

There’s a lot the reader doesn’t know, a lot that Shigri isn’t telling.

Why was the narrator’s father, Colonel Shigri, found hanging from the ceiling fan by his own bedsheet? What exactly is going on between Shigri and his roommate, Obaid, who mysteriously vanishes and then incriminates his best friend? Does Shigri know why a plane is missing from the base? What role does the unjustly imprisoned woman named Blind Zainab play in all this political scheming, and in particular, why oh why do we care about a crow who overhears her curse and has just been blown back into the story? The character narrating these events knows the answer to all these questions. Shigri is just not ready to tell me yet.

The novel alternates chapters between Shigri’s limited first person account of the two months and seventeen days leading up to the death of General Zia, and a third person recreation of General Zia’s last days, his wife’s abandoning him, the death of his security officer, and yes, the fateful peregrinations of a certain crow.

Now, I don’t know how all this is going to end yet, but I can’t help noticing a similarity between Shigri and the hero/narrators of several other recent favorite novels. Shigri feels like the most recent incarnation of the trickster archetype, currently undergoing some serious popular revival in the role of narrator.

Reluctant Fundamentalist  Take unreliable young Changez who’s telling the story in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Although exactly what happens in this novel is up for grabs, in my interpretation it’s about a disillusioned international student who’s returned to his homeland of Pakistan after 9/11 where he now teaches, and whose students have been inciting trouble on campus. He’s being followed by a covert agent, and is currently weaving a narrative spell of death, telling his own story of disillusionment as he lures the spellbound agent into fatally waiting too long in the marketplace of Lahore.

White Tiger  If Changez is hard to interpret, Balram is equally so. The narrator of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger is a poor country bumpkin from North India trying to survive as a chauffeur in the cutthroat big city of New Delhi. He needs to survive by his wits – but wits he has, in spades. As soon as he confides in the reader that he’s murdered his boss, I was ready to dislike him. As far as I was concerned, Balram had just stepped out of my moral universe. Something kept me reading, partly the contagious humor of Balram’s cagey candor and maybe also sheer bafflement because Balram’s doomed boss is the only one who is kind to him. Well, there are laughs a plenty, but in a novel of inspired comedy the actual murder is anything but. And once your moral values have been thoroughly scrambled, Adiga ends the story with a final sequence that will leave you touched and filled with wonder at the baffling human race.

Changez, Balram and Shigri all share the same impulse to court the reader’s good opinion, even if it means holding back certain pertinent bits of exposition, leaving the reader with little blind spots, planting assumptions that aren’t quite correct. They’re all charmers hiding something behind their backs. As I sit here reading the last fifty pages of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, I’m braced for having that rug yanked out from under me, for the shock from whatever Junior Officer Shigri is still waiting to reveal.

It’s a rich literary vein to mine in these ironic times where governments lie and media collaborate and wars refuse to stop. The trickster is our modern hero, the witty, imperfect cynical narrator surviving in the world today.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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