Writ­ing the front lines

Nadeem As­lam with Phil Klay, a Lannan Lit­er­ary Se­ries event

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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.

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