Mohamed Hanif‘s latest book, Red Birds, published by Grove Atlantic, brings the surreality of the automation of present day war to life. The new language of war; collateral damage to describe the death of civilians and the destruction of infrastructure, drones, smart bombs and surgical strikes, all make the business of killing and destroying sound so clean and clinical.
Well, in Red Birds Hanif has given us a small slice of this new reality with both funny and heartbreaking detail. We’re transported to an unnamed desert in an unknown country where we find a refugee camp, an abandoned American base referred to simply as ‘The Hanger’, and a downed American pilot looking to be rescued.
The story is told in turn by the various characters who populate the world Hanif has created. While alternating between points of view can make things a little confusing for the reader as to the overall narrative, in this case it works wonderfully. Each character, from the pilot Major Ellie to Momo and Mutt – a teenage boy and his dog who inhabit the refugee camp – is fascinating enough in their own right that we simply enjoy the time we spend with them.
So, just like during a war, our image of the war and the situation is coloured by whomever is doing the talking. We soon learn, that even though each of them have their own agenda, Mutt the dog is probably the most reliable narrator. When he and his boy Momo describe the same event, we find we’re far more inclined to believe the dog.
Even some of the other characters don’t have their own names, but are referred to as whatever Momo calls them: Father Dear, Mother Dear (his parents), Lady Flowerbody the aid worker, and Doctor, who may or may not be a doctor. While this means we initially only see these people through the eyes of Momo and Mutt, which colours our perceptions of them to say the least, as the story progresses they develop their own voices and we start to see the world from their perspective.
Interestingly enough the more views we have of the world the more the atmosphere of the book changes. What starts off as a very funny, in a wonderful satirical dark humoured way, story becomes a little more dark in a sad way.
We travel from Momo boasting about all the studies he’s been used as a subject for: “I have been the subject of many studies since I was eleven. ‘Growing Pain in Conflict Zones. ‘Tribal Cultures Get It. Even ‘Reiki For War Survivors'” to the characters having to deal with loss and grief. However, the transition from the slightly ridiculous to serious is so subtly done you don’t realize its happening until all of a sudden you find yourself thinking, this isn’t so funny anymore.
Which of course is as it should be, war isn’t funny. Hanif lulls us into a false sense of security thinking we won’t have to risk any emotional involvement. He hooks us with the humour and before we know it we’re into uncharted territory and seeing the real sadness and horror behind the absurdity of the modern language of war. Nothing about war has actually changed – it just sounds cleaner and nicer. People still die in horrible ways and cities are still destroyed
Red Birds by Hanif is a wonderful, human look at the absurdity and true sadness of modern war. That it also happens to be a great read just makes it even better.