- The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam
Faber, 409 pp, £18.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 571 28791 8
In October 2001, media reports claimed that tens of thousands of Pakistanis had volunteered to help the victims of the American bombing of Afghanistan. Many of these men (and women), whose fate has remained largely obscure to us, crossed the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border to fight the invading ‘infidels’; others stayed behind to help arriving refugees. The Blind Man’s Garden, Nadeem Aslam’s fourth novel, and his most ambitious, seeks to describe both the communal nature of war – the bereavements and partings that afflict almost everyone – and the particular experiences of a few individuals in a Pakistani town called Heer. It may take a while to adjust to Aslam’s cast of characters and his premodernist fusion of the individual and the historical more reminiscent of The Charterhouse of Parma than of any contemporary literary novel.
In an early scene a poor widow called Tara is commissioned to sew an American flag. In her town, where many people have stories about friends or relatives being killed, tortured or imprisoned, the flag can only be wanted for one purpose. ‘Can you please make sure that it is of a material that doesn’t burn too fast or too slowly?’ her client asks. ‘The flames have to look inspiring and fearsome in the photographs.’ Over several pages Aslam describes Tara at work, ‘setting fire to small strips of cloth to measure the texture, intensity and evenness of the various flames’. She makes the stars out of white satin then wonders ‘what the various elements of the flag signify. Are the white and red stripes rivers of milk and wine, flowing under a sky bursting with the splendour of stars? Or are they paths soaked with blood, alternating with paths strewn with bleached white bones, leading out of a sea full of explosions?’ Tara’s speculation may seem lurid, fuelled by paranoia and ignorance, if not a primeval anti-Americanism, but Aslam appears unfazed by the possibility of provoking exasperated alienation in his readers. Beginning with Season of the Rainbirds (1993), which depicts a hardhearted small-town mullah in Pakistan, he has set himself the task of describing the ideas and beliefs of people in semi-modern lower-middle-class communities. His outspoken protagonists blithely disregard Anglo-American notions of tact and discretion. ‘Two of their buildings fell down,’ an Afghan remarks of his American enemies in The Wasted Vigil (2008), ‘and they think they know about the world’s darkness, about how unsafe a place it is capable of being!’ In Maps for Lost Lovers (2005), set in a small Yorkshire town, a defender of honour killing has his say: ‘The West is full of hypocrites, who kill our people with impunity and say it’s all a matter of principle and justice, but when we do the same thing they say our definition of “principle” and “justice” is flawed.’
Aslam writes with a special feeling for the conservative Muslim mind – unusual in someone working in the predominantly secular tradition of the novel. No character in Maps for Lost Lovers gets as much authorial attention as Kaukab, a devout housewife and mother, who chants the Koran in Arabic, a language she doesn’t know, and whose stern prohibitions, emerging from a profound fear of the outside world, have damaged many lives, including her own children’s. Here, Aslam describes her laboriously picking up the prayer beads she scattered when she slapped her daughter during an argument:
There is a sense of consolation to the activity her fingers are engaged in, almost as though contact is being made with the dead: as a child she had seen her mother and grandmothers, and the other women in the house, similarly bent over the myriad daily tasks of the day, and sometimes – but not today, not now – the feeling is close to celebration, a remembrance and a praising of those now dead and absent but still living in her mind, unsung elsewhere and otherwise. Gone so thoroughly it is as though she had dreamed them.