Writing the front lines
Nadeem Aslam with Phil Klay, a Lannan Literary Series event
WElive in a time when it is considered de rigueur and urgent to read novels set in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as literature may be the rare discipline that can bridge the yawning geographical and cultural gap between those living in the Greater Middle East and in the United States. In order for fiction to work in this way, however, it must be immersive — which is to say that when reading, we ought to feel in a bracing, sensorial way that we are in, say, Peshawar. In Nadeem Aslam’s latest novel,
The Blind Man’s Garden (Alfred A. Knopf/ Penguin Random House, 2013), when we get to Peshawar, we see it from a distance, through a soupy narrative of memories, hearsay, and newspaper clippings. Aslam’s work has been called beautiful, and he certainly has lyricism to burn. He is the author of four novels, which are steeped in a romanticized sensibility, and though cruelties abound, even the brutal scenes in his books have the air more of legend than reality. A BritishPakistani novelist, he won the Kiriyama Prize for Maps
for Lost Lovers (2004). Aslam reads from his work and is joined in conversation by National Book Awardwinning author Phil Klay ( Redeployment) at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 30, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center as part of the Lannan Literary Series.
Aslam’s debut novel, Season of the Rainbirds (1993) has a winning preface, and as the narrative begins, it feels like we are going to enter a R.K. Narayan universe. The late Indian writer created the fictional city of Malgudi in southern India; after you’ve read a couple of his novels, you can, in theory, walk the dusty streets he conjures up and know where to order coffee without a fly floating in it. Season of the Rainbirds is set in a Pakistani village where the corrupt Judge Anwar has just been murdered. No sooner do we begin to get acquainted with the local cleric and some villagers than we are told that a sack of letters — lost some two decades ago in a train crash — has resurfaced. All this has the whiff of construction about it and makes you long for the organic rhythms of Narayan’s The Financial Expert (1952), which also deals with corruption — in this case, the shady dealings of a moneylender, Margayya. Narayan gets us into Margayya’s mind and milieu from the first scene onwards, and we delightedly walk along Margayya’s nefarious path all the way to the end. It could be argued that Narayan’s tone is different, tinged as it is with delicious humor. Season of the Rainbirds hews closer in tone to Anita Desai’s In Custody (1984), about a professor eager to interview a great Urdu poet. But whereas Desai’s novel hums almost from the beginning with small insights, Aslam’s book trots at an even clip through several beginning scenes, and a strong cup of coffee is needed to follow the fallout from the judge’s murder.
Maps for Lost Lovers lands squarely in the genre of immigrant literature. Set in an English town with a sizable community of Pakistani natives, the story, about the disappearance of two lovers, Jugnu and Chanda, is seen from the point of view of Jugnu’s older brother, Shamas. A typical Aslam character, Shamas tends to linger outside his house, observing or recalling flora and fauna, while the author neatly maps his inner landscape. Occasionally, the worn notes of the immigrant genre are played: “It was a time in England when the white attitude toward the dark- skinned foreigners was just beginning to go from I don’t want to see them or work next to them to I don’t mind working next to them if I’m forced to, as long as I don’t have to speak to them, an attitude that would change again within the next ten years to I don’t mind speaking to them when I have to in the workplace, as long as I don’t have to talk to them outside the working hours.” The problem with this kind of generalized observation about race is that it diminishes people rather than advancing the conversation. A more nuanced approach might point to systemic conditions that have allowed racism to thrive, rather than setting up an us-versus-them dynamic.
The setups in Aslam’s recent novels, The Wasted Vigil (2008) and The Blind Man’s Garden, are more vital and compelling, and it becomes evident that he is a sensitive chronicler of past and present traumas. In the latter novel, a month after 9/11, Jeo, a medical student from a small town in Pakistan, tells his family he will go to Peshawar to help the wounded Afghans who are being transported there, but in fact he has decided to go to Afghanistan to help the locals impacted by the
U.S. invasion in that country. With elegant brush strokes, Aslam sketches the nuances of Jeo’s relationships with his wife and with his adoptive brother, Mikal. As the setup of The Blind Man’s Garden is executed, however, a sense of remove creeps in.
When Jeo’s father, Rohan, accompanies him on a train to Peshawar, we are not aware of how grungy trains are in the subcontinent; instead, there is a romanticized scene of Jeo and Mikal poring over a map with a flashlight, and later, of Rohan observing his son as he sleeps in a train compartment. “He stands beside the sleeping Jeo and sees how beautiful he is, how young. ... He leans forward and places a kiss on his grown-up son’s face. In the bathroom he performs the ritual ablutions and comes out and begins to read the Koran.” Aslam’s prose can be formal, archaic, and therefore distancing. His style is almost the opposite of Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid’s spare, direct approach in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007). Hamid gets many cultural nuances across while moving briskly between the Pakistani and Americann cultures.
In Peshawar, Rohan accompanies Jeo to the hospital where he is supposedly going to work, and then Rohan makes his way to someone’s house to give thanks for a donation of books. A rally is going on in the streets — we do not experience the rally — but we understand that Rohan has to turn around and return to the hospital, where he will find out that Jeo has left for Afghanistan. Aslam eventually gets us to eastern Afghanistan, where the “War on Terror” has created fresh horrors. The post 9/11 universe is far removed from the one writers like Ernest Hemingway lived in. Hemingway reported on the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Alliance and lived to tell the tale. For
Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) crackles with sensory details and plants us in the intimate center of a guerrilla camp. Today, it’s more difficult for writers to be in the path of such ruthless and elusive organizations as ISIS — which makes literature about areas impacted by war all the more welcome and necessary, flaws and all.
When he describes Rohan’s garden, Aslam returns to form. The evocations of the natural world and of the school that Rohan and his late wife, Sofia, founded, help us enter Rohan’s character and feel the grace in their relationship. Sofia’s lack of belief, even as she died, pains Rohan, and he imagines the tortures she is likely experiencing after her death. Here, Aslam is on solid ground as he conveys to us the tragedy of a couple who are seemingly perfect for each other, and yet are sundered apart by theology. The way in which Aslam articulates relationships and their tensile bonds is one of the more affecting features of his work.
Nadeem Aslam’s work has been called beautiful, and he certainly has lyricism to burn. He is the author of four novels, which are steeped in
a romanticized sensibility.