Within the rubble

Books Nadeem Aslam channels his fury with the disaster of contemporary Afghanistan. But a novelist, writes Robin Yassin-Kassab, must produce more than mere rage.

An unidentified official of the Afghan Taliban militia stands near the virtually destroyed tallest standing Buddha statue in Bamiyan city, in the central Afghanistan, 26 March 2001. Taliban militia dyamited two ancient buddhas after a decree from their supreme commander Mullah Mohammad Omer to destroy all statues in the country as they are unislamic. (FILM) AFP PHOTO/ Saeed KHAN
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Nadeem Aslam's new novel channels his fury with the disaster of contemporary Afghanistan. But today, writes Robin Yassin-Kassab, a novelist must produce more than mere rage.
The Wasted Vigil Nadeem Aslam Faber and Faber Dh115
After September 11, the British-Pakistani author Nadeem Aslam told The Independent that he was plagued by feelings of guilt: "I asked myself whether in my personal life and as a writer I had been rigorous enough to condemn the small scale September 11s that go on every day." Detaching September 11 from its political context, Aslam subsumed all crimes committed in the name of Islam to one category, and so saw patriarchal bullying within the family or the overbearing social pressure of a conservative neighbourhood as forms almost of Islamist terrorism, mini September 11s.

His highly praised second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers, released in 2004, deals with precisely such prosaic atrocities. The book is a portrait of a tortured and self-tormenting Pakistani community in the north of England that calls itself Dasht-e-Tanhaii, or Desert of Loneliness; it is working class and inward-looking, bound by secrets and taboos, fearing and hating the white world beyond its walls. The atrocities enacted include an honour killing, a brutal "exorcism", paedophilia in the mosque and wife beating - each episode based on real events culled from newspapers. But the threat of violence in Aslam's Lonely Desert is ultimately incapable of holding lovers back from the passion of life. Here is the novel's great beauty: in the exuberance of individual desire, in the capacity of people to break their cages - also in the poetry of moths and flowers that cloaks Aslam's postindustrial town with an Urdu-tinted mantle of transcendence.

Though elegant, the novel is unbalanced in its unrelenting focus on crimes of honour. It fails to show how the meanings of Islam are contested within Muslim communities by liberal, fundamentalist and traditionalist Muslims, by feminists and misogynists, leftists and rightists. But it was written with the love and deep knowledge of an insider. Aslam writes about parents and children in the way we all probably think of our own parents and children - with simultaneous compassion, admiration and revulsion. His characters are complex and sympathetic even when their behaviour is cruel. Each is a breathing individual, deeply human, credible on their own terms, whatever their writer's political message.

In that same Independent interview, Aslam spoke of the visceral sense of responsibility he felt as a Muslim for the murderous excesses of other Muslims: "We moderate Muslims have to stand up," he said. "I feel that a game of Hangman is being played on an enormous scale in the world, and that sooner or later I'm going to be asked certain questions, and if I don't give the right answer somebody is going to get hurt."

This comment prefigured Aslam's new novel, The Wasted Vigil, which concentrates on the murderous excesses of Afghanistan, a land where Muslim violence reaches out of private homes and into the enormous scale of the skies. What made this violence erupt? The CIA began funding and arming right-wing Islamists in Afghanistan even before the Soviet invasion in December 1979, in an effort to "increase the probability" that the Russians would intervene. In the resulting war perhaps two million Afghans died and up to five million fled the country. Afghanistan lost its infrastructure and its educated class. The Russians were eventually driven out, only to be replaced by squabbling "mujahideen" warlords who terrorised the population in pursuit of their private vendettas. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, with the approval of the United States, backed the Taliban, who made the roads safer and stopped opium cultivation, but at a huge cost. In a perverse marriage of the worst of the Deobandi and Wahhabi theological traditions, the Taliban's boy commanders declared an Afghan year zero. Men were imprisoned for having "un-Islamic haircuts". Women were forbidden to leave the house unaccompanied. All "ungodly innovations", from kite flying to television, were banned. After September 11, American policy shifted abruptly. A new set of warlords were brought to power, and the Kabul bourgeoisie was partially liberated.

Today Afghanistan remains mired in war, corruption and poverty. The latest foreign occupation wants to educate the Afghans out of their barbarism, but doesn't recognise that every prior foreign occupation has dramatically increased that barbarism. The Taliban, almost universally hated a few years ago, are resurgent in the guise of a national liberation movement. Afghanistan is a vast human tragedy representing the moral and practical failure of all concerned, Muslim and Christian, Arab and Pakistani, Russian and American. It's enough to enrage anyone. A novelist, however, must produce more than rage.

Aslam presents Afghanistan through the eyes of foreigners whose lives are painfully tied to the country. Marcus Caldwell, an Englishman aged and bearded like "a prophet in wreckage", welcomes a succession of wounded characters to his house near Tora Bora. These visitors are connected and divided by bitter secrets, shared loss and burning questions. What has become of Marcus's Afghan wife, his daughter and most brutally, his hand? What of the Russian woman Lara's brother, a missing Soviet soldier? Or of the ex-spy David's brother, or his lover, Marcus's daughter, Zameen? And what of David's son, Marcus's grandson? The sad answers to these mysteries are revealed gradually through a narrative of flashbacks, on a canvas stretched between Islamabad, New York and Saint Petersburg.

At its best, The Wasted Vigil is a lament for what has been destroyed: the traces of Afghanistan's Buddhist and Sufi past, its tradition of miniaturist art, its myths and stories, its delicate intermingling of histories like the scents in a blended perfume. And Aslam generates many startling images (most notably a camel carrying a car's burnt-out shell) and extended metaphors. Perhaps the novel's key character is Marcus's house itself, in which the art and architecture of each room is dedicated to one of the five senses. Books fall in a random literary rain from the ceilings, to which they were nailed by Marcus's tragedy-maddened wife to hide and save them from the Taliban. Similarly, the walls are covered in paintings, which in turn are covered with mud to protect them from fundamentalist vandals. But some are visible:

"Several of the lovers on the wall were on their own because of the obliterating impact of the bullets - nothing but a gash or a terrible ripping away where the corresponding man or woman used to be. A shredded limb, a lost eye." This literal blurring of art and reality works well in a context where cultural violence and murder jog hand in hand - the Taliban's attacks on the Bamyan Buddhas and Sufi shrines, the American tanks crushing the ancient walls of Ur in Iraq. In the lands of America's wars, history has often been a victim. Marcus's house hides a secret Buddha underground, just as Afghanistan hides its Buddhist past. Afghanistan itself is figured as a collapsed building in which "everyone's life now lies broken at different levels within the rubble."

Aslam excels in the poetic crossing of borders whereby the senses leak into each other and an idea can be conveyed by the beating of a butterfly's wings. He presents a stare so strong it verges on sound, a character with "skin the colour of violins" and the "weather" of people's souls. Unfortunately, it may be that this writerly strength contributes to the category errors in Aslam's political thought, whereby bombs leak into beatings and honour killing spreads into mass terrorism.

The Wasted Vigil is handicapped by characters that are not quite fully imagined, not quite precise enough to convince. Almost interchangeably, the three non-Afghan characters speak and think about gemstones, perfumes and the classics of world literature, sometimes apparently only to give Aslam further opportunities to be poetic. All three often sound suspiciously like Nadeem Aslam with his committed anti-Islamist hat on.

There is one major Afghan character: Casa, a fundamentalist who, with his horrifyingly wrongheaded interpretations of Islam, seldom rises above stereotype. His religion is animated by hatred for non-Muslims of all varieties as well as traditional Muslims, women, blacks and intellectuals. Such bitter, monomaniacal characters doubtless exist in the real world, but Aslam (unlike in Maps for Lost Lovers) shows us not much more of their inner lives than we see on the TV news. Casa is partially offset by Dunia, a walk-on spokeswoman for a more liberal Islam, but the other minor Afghan characters include two warlords, a wife-murdering cleric and a duplicitous suicide bomber. The reader is told that ordinary Afghans despise the fundamentalists, but rarely sees ordinary people up close in their daily struggles.

"There's no message in my books," Aslam told the Independent, but here he appears to have broken his rule. His free indirect style - by which the narrator experiences the world through his characters - breaks down, and the author breaks in, sometimes with thoroughly questionable generalisations ("The religion of Islam at its core does not believe in the study of science") and orientalist falsehoods (Syria and Egypt suffered cultural collapse when the first Muslims arrived). The book's final act of violence points to how interconnected western and eastern guilt are in Afghanistan, and how mutual the suffering, but the general approach does not allow enough convincing voices to challenge either fundamentalist or western stereotypes.

The novels style can slip to become an overblown parody of itself. Not every image or beautiful phrase fits snugly in place, especially when Aslam chugs them out without reason: why say "work" when you can call it "the labours of the world"? A sentence rhythm is sometimes ruined entirely by repetition, and there is at times floweriness without a restraining economy, so that even explosions and executions lose their impact. The Wasted Vigil should make the reader experience Afghanistan as if it is immediately present; all too often it offers only an unchallenging exoticism.

Our times call for fiction which challenges the simplistic assumptions of religious fundamentalists and imperialising secularists alike. Novel writing is always an excruciatingly difficult process, much easier to get wrong than to get right. The difficulty only increases when the novelist seeks to represent Muslims to a non-Muslim audience in an Islamophobic climate. It may be that here Aslam has tripped up, disabled by his strange sense of cultural guilt for September 11 and by the resultant pressure to rail against the easy target of right wing Islamism. He is an immensely gifted writer, capable of great artistry and feeling, who has already won a deservedly large audience. It is a shame, therefore, that this novel remains on the shimmering surface of things. Its reportage feels a bit like CNN with poetry added, or those technically brilliant Iranian films that seem made for Western festival judges rather than for a real public. As such, The Wasted Vigil is a wasted opportunity.
Robin Yassin-Kassab's novel, The Road From Damascus, was published in June by Hamish Hamilton. His last piece in The Review was on rai music.