Occupying powers have aerially bombarded the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan for nearly a century, since November 1919 to be precise, when the British began bombing Waziristan as a form of collective punishment for rebellious tribal populations. For roughly the last fifteen years, human pilots have been surplus to the job. In 2004, American and allied drones began to take out suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in their courtyards and hideouts, often in the company of people against whom neither these charges, nor any other, had been levelled.

It’s taken a hundred years, but a white guy has fallen to the ground at last in the unnamed battlefield where Mohammed Hanif’s third novel, Red Birds, is set. This angel, lightly singed, falls to earth near a desert town of refugees – a Nowhereistan, as the Americans would say. It is a border town, in that it contains a border within itself. On the other side of the refugee camp is a slick, mysterious ghost town called the Hangar. From here, foreigners used to run local war operations, but have recently abandoned it.

Most importantly, they’ve taken the teenaged Momo’s elder brother Ali in tow. Instead of Ali, Momo stumbles upon Ellie, the pale-skinned pilot, his red flight suit turned inside out. Ellie says he’s crashed his plane on his way to deliver American aid to locals in need. Momo, a hustler born and bred in the long wartime of the desert, doesn’t even have to give the lie the dignity of a moment’s consideration. They hope to find each other mutually useful, as we knew they would.

An open wound

But the two don’t even meet until Red Birds is well under way. When they do, the effect is one of a long, cold exhale: about damn time. For all the dramatic potential of this set-up and the rush of action to follow, Red Birds is not really about the absurdities of the colonial encounter, although it generates other pyrotechnics within its pages. Told in short bursts by a variety of first-person narrators, it is actually a long ramble. It even feels like a slog. For all its laughs – fewer than Hanif’s devotees may expect – it is really the story of an open wound, and it speaks and imagines only hurt.

In retrospect, hurt has been Hanif’s hallmark. His first novel, A Case Of Exploding Mangoes, was a brilliant explosion of temper at the regime of Zia-ul-haq and how it spoiled the promise of Pakistan. Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti was a man’s wonder-filled account of the unimaginable heroism of Karachi’s lower-caste women, even if it flew off its handle once too often to deliver on the magical promise of his style.

Hanif writes like Buster Keaton acted – poker-faced, fearless, not just balancing comedy with tragedy but rendering the idea of any real difference between the two preposterous. (Keaton also spent the best years of his acting career in an unimaginably divided land, full of hardscrabble poverty and memories of war, a place, like Pakistan – and India – where everyone was apt to be made a fool some of the time.) But Red Birds may prompt the question of whether Hanif has brought his own version of the Great Stone Face into a theatre that is too serious even for his brand of gallows humour.

A shambolic world

It’s not the subject itself. War and refugee life are classic novel-writing concerns, and western writers, including some veterans of the twenty-first century wars, have already begun to fill libraries with their versions of the poetry and pity of their long occupation of “the Muslim world”. From America, with the best of intentions, the war is just the opening shot of Apocalypse Now, now in digital HD, endlessly played out over fewer palm trees. In Red Birds, the subject is personal.

In 2013, Hanif produced a rare work of English-language journalism (his day-to-day work is largely in Urdu) about enforced disappearances in Balochistan, published by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. His dossier was called The Baloch Who Is Not Missing Anymore And Others Who Are. On the fact-finding mission, Hanif met men who told him things like, “They showed me two bodies. They were both my son’s age. One boy had his throat slit. Another one had his legs cut off just below his knees. I was relieved neither of them was my son.” (As quietly as he can, Hanif interjects: “He had a really good look.”)

Red Birds is removed from this political context, but the shock and horror of this life are its real subjects. As a result, this is Hanif’s most sorrowful book. Its grief swallows up its plot in a way that a hard-hearted critic might call despairing. The book is a shambles because it describes a shambolic world. War has laid waste to everyone here, from the paltry American dealing death from the air, to the book’s most endearing character, a wild dog with a voice of its own that has attached itself to the family of the missing Ali.

Who is real and who isn’t?

They are all thoroughly unhinged by the poverty of their landscape, their humiliating past and unthinkable future in this camp. It is a place that – here our author-pilot is a little too on the nose, no pun intended – Ellie was supposed to bomb out of existence before he landed there himself. Why? These people burden the earth but lightly. Not even the innocence of a remote existence is left to them by the inhuman eyes of their enemies. Their very language has emptied itself.

Bombarded by America day after day, they have vacated the roles of Ammi and Abba-jaan and become Mother Dear and Father Dear; the absent Ali bhai has become Bro Ali. There is even an awkwardly named aid worker, Lady “Flowerbody”, the target of some of the book’s sprightliest gags. Hanif’s natural distaste for authority renders this perhaps his cruellest portrait of a woman yet; elsewhere, the same distaste is inverted in the sympathy of a cameo, the kindest in the novel, for Mother Dear, with one eye on God’s will and her sights out for her sons.

I didn’t enjoy Red Birds, and found it especially hard going as its dissolving narrative boundaries opened up to another of Hanif’s habits in the last third of his books: recourse to the paranormal. Its plot may be predictable once Momo and Ellie have met, but the break from reality is not necessarily one that leads to deeper truths. Yet it’s impossible to call it a failure, because on every page it struggles so truthfully with its dark and hulking subject. Its inability to devise an elegant solution to what it’s about – people dying in a refugee camp – is perhaps its own kind of achievement.

Few English-language writers can make Pakistanis or Indians – or both at once – smile as readily as Hanif can. But it’s the sadness that he has never concealed from us that makes his work truly appealing. When he erases the difference between militants and civilians, or rebels and occupiers, it isn’t to make a point about our common humanity. Our common humanity is where his other stories begin. But in a world where everyone is a ghost, an alien, a blip on a screen, there’s no telling who is real.

Or is there? Hanif has never yet given in to nihilism. In his view, we may none of us be real, English or Urdu-speakers, except as subjects of common, everyday human love (or dumb animal love, as the case may be). This love, and the dignity with which it sees us, is never proposed to us as redemption. But it is the thing that gives life value, and Hanif’s novels their universality. We can tell ourselves that this value should mean something, even in a refugee camp, to a people born in a country that has been bombed from the air for a hundred years. But Red Birds leaves us more unconsoled than ever before.

Red Birds, Mohammed Hanif, Bloomsbury.