NOVEMBER 16, 2013
IN NADEEM ASLAM’S haunting new novel, The Blind Man’s Garden, a village schoolteacher in Afghanistan writes to the United Nations pleading to be rescued from the hell she is in: “It is my 197th letter over the past five years, please help us.” The letter is written four years into the Taliban’s regime of stonings and public beheadings; a regime with a special affection for female schoolteachers depraved enough to educate young girls.
Where did this teacher get the money for foreign postage for 197 letters, one wonders. To whom in the UN did she address her entreaties? Did anyone in that noble and oily organization ever read her letters? The reader is not told any of this. Mikal, the novel’s intense young protagonist, finds the letter after 9/11, torn in half in a rose garden in a Taliban mountain fort, hours before it is stormed by American soldiers. To yoke beauty and brutality by locating a paradisiacal rose garden and stream inside a compound of zealots is a hallmark of Aslam’s lyrical style. He is a writer who can bend barbed wire into calligraphy. In his second and most deeply written novel, Maps for Lost Lovers, Pakistani immigrants in an English village place pots of scented geraniums in the center of the downstairs room in the hope that if white racists were to break in at night, the perfume of “rosehips and ripening limes” from the smashed pots would warn the sleepers of intruders. Rose gardens in Taliban citadels might sound like a touch of orientalist rogue, but to mull over the image is to discern an imperceptible hint: isn’t another rose garden the site from which a succession of presidents have declared war and missile strikes, and lied to the world? There is no direct equivalence here — Aslam is neither a pamphleteer nor a fool — but he certainly startles the reader into looking at the world with new eyes. This is a guerilla wordsmith who takes cover behind loveliness to lob language at your certainties.
Mikal and his best friend travel up from Pakistan to provide medical aid to the wounded people of Afghanistan but are duped and sold to the Taliban. An ordinary man caught in the Great Game, Mikal is described as “a mud-child and drifter,” for that is what his life has been ever since his beloved father, a communist poet, was disappeared by a Pakistani dictator. The figure of the persecuted poet recurs through Aslam’s fiction, no doubt in homage to his own father, a poet forced to seek asylum in England from the pro-American General Zia. Mikal’s journey will propel the narrative; illuminate the horrors of the Taliban’s intolerance and America’s blundering war on terror. He will blunder terribly too, even as he tries to protect with maimed hands (his index fingers have been chopped off by an Afghan warlord to impede him from using a gun) the destinies of those around him: his best friend who is with him in that rose garden fortress; his best friend’s wife whom he loves with a blazing passion; his irreverent and wonderful brother, Basie, named for the Count of jazz; and the silent American soldier who has the word “Infidel” tattooed on his back like a tabloid taunt, not in English, but in huge Arabic letters, so that the enemy can read and know that America is unafraid.
This is the second novel — The Wasted Vigil was the first — in which Aslam cups his ear to the tragedy of Afghanistan. A country so crippled that shops sell “single shoes”; where no one would be surprised if the trees were to one day stop growing for fear their roots might hit “a landmine buried nearby.” The very name Mikal — the Islamic counterpart of the Anglo-Christian archangel Michael or the Russian Mikhail — encloses in two syllables the centuries-long tramp of boots and slaughter through Afghanistan. British, Russian, Taliban, and now that “two of their buildings” have been knocked down — as the jihadi Casa from The Wasted Vigil so coolly puts it — American. Once again, the careful choice of name, Mikal, is a conceit typical of Aslam. Mikal, Michael, Mikhail — so close, except that scant feeling of brotherhood exists between the three.
Because “History is the third parent.” This is the declarative opening line of the novel. Keyed out in italics, it bores through the reader like a copper plate bullet, blasting open the scale of the story. What the characters are up against is a superpower called History, a force far older than America or Islam. Isn’t it because of history that Christianity’s angels are golden-haired and blue-eyed and adorn themselves in robes of pure white, while Islam’s colorful and extraordinarily stylish ones wear chiffon turbans? Later, when Aslam describes how drawings schoolchildren have sent their soldiers of “helicopters dropping bombs on small figures in turbans” decorate an American holding center, the sense of desolation unleashed by the innocent absolutism of those drawings is hard to describe. Equally grim is the impression that instead of the bright light on the hill that it wants to be, America is in danger of being defined by the even brighter light used in sleep-deprivation cages, where men like Mikal and other suspected terrorists from Yemen, Nigeria, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Morocco, Sudan, Somalia — a near roll call of the Islamic world — are manacled, punched, kicked, yelled at, and interrogated.
What is America? It’s a question that a poor woman in Pakistan, the mother of the woman Mikal loves, turns over in her mind as she sews an American flag. She will be paid 25 rupees, less than 50 cents, for the flag, and she has only agreed because she needs the money. The young man paying for the flag plans to burn it after the Friday prayers and has instructed that the material should burn quickly, but not too quickly — “the flames have to look inspiring and fearsome in the photographs.” What are the stripes for, the arthritic woman wonders, as she cuts out a pile of glossy white stars from a length of satin: “Are the white and red stripes rivers of milk and wine flowing under a sky bursting with the splendor 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?” As she works on the flag by her radio, the newscaster announces that Kabul has fallen to the Americans, and that the Taliban have fled.
Aslam roots The Blind Man’s Garden in a fictional town in northern Pakistan, but the story spills over into the chaos of Afghanistan. Though written after The Wasted Vigil, the events in it prequel those of the earlier novel, which is set a few years into the war on terror. This is a looser, less honed book than its outstanding predecessor, and because it hoes the same brutal and melancholy 9/11 furrow, it lacks the freshness of the former. But it is still has the power to move and terrify. A key link between the two novels is a character that appears so fleetingly in The Blind Man’s Garden that one can almost miss him. The man who interrogates Mikal, David Town, appears more fully in The Wasted Vigil, but later in his life, after he has left the CIA. Stricken with a profound guilt, David now builds schools in Afghanistan, schools that are bombed by the young jihadi, Casa, an orphan who has grown up in a refugee camp and is driven by his sole desire to destroy America. Together, they form what Aslam calls “a fellowship of wounds.”
The fate of the letter-writing schoolteacher is unknown but one can guess from the torn letter at what must have befallen her. One recalls with a shudder the fate of the 22-year-old teacher called Dunia in The Wasted Vigil, who, after defying the Taliban by running a small school, is finally captured by them. The misogyny of the fanatic is a persistent theme in Aslam’s writing. In the south of Waziristan, he writes with deadpan cruelty, stands a grove of trees whose wood is normally used for writing desks but is now increasingly used to make noses for women whose families have cut off theirs. It’s impossible to read about abducted schoolteachers and wooden noses and not recall the 16-year-old Pakistani girl swaddled in her dead prime minister’s shawl addressing the United Nations. After Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by a Taliban hood last year, global outrage surged and forked into two livid streams, best illustrated by the two cartoons that were forwarded like a bitter call-and-response around the internet: one had a young schoolgirl being held up at gunpoint by a large and hirsute Taliban soldier, and the other had two children squatting in front of a hut with the slogan, “The drones killed our parents.” Why, demanded those forwarding the second image, was the shooting of Malala any different from drone murder? What about the rights of children orphaned by drones?
That condemning the Malala shooting does not make one an apologist for drones, or the other way around; and that both are equally reprehensible, and interconnected, both part of the “fellowship of wounds,” is what Aslam’s novels tirelessly demonstrate. It is the wounded that command his gaze. Few writers have managed to explore this old story of greed and political injustice with more compassion and fairness than him. Every actor in Afghanistan is implicated in his novels; no one is given a pass. And because the finger pointing is so inconsolably even — Aslam is not afraid to bluntly catalogue British, Soviet, Islamist, and American excesses — one gets an idea of how cynical the story really is, and how ordinary people, especially the poor, are suffering because of it. Aslam has a corrosive anger for the literalist, not so much for the brainwashed Casas of the world, but for the bigot escutcheoned with patriotism and for those caged behind the bars of surah and verse. As a British-Asian atheist with a devout Muslim mother and a Marxist poet father, he inhabits the “bloody borders,” so to speak. His heart breaks for Pakistan, a beloved homeland reduced to “a caliphate of rubble,” but he also says that if he were never to see England again, “my heart would be broken.” All this, combined with a rich multicultural fluency — his characters cite pearly Sanskrit erotica as easily as they do James Joyce — is what makes him such an important novelist today. His 9/11 novels are a much-needed antidote to, say, a Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) or a Martin Amis (The Second Plane).
Like Nabokov, Aslam, whose mother tongue is Urdu, came to English as an immigrant. He learned it as a teenager, copying out the whole of Moby-Dick and Blood Meridian to expand his vocabulary. His prose is armed with allusions to history, literature, religion, science, and nature. Moths, pigments, books, djinns, jazz, tulips, and the Buddha are recurring motifs, but none more so than the pomegranate, an ancient seed-stuffed symbol of fertility but also, ironically enough, the template for the grenade. He has a gift for the visceral poetic phrase. A bomb blast causes the blades of a ceiling fan to curl “like a tulip,” a flower whose Persian name, lalah, “has the same letters as Allah.” The two images, one deformed and the other divine, are from separate novels, but they meet in the reader’s mind. Ripe mulberries are “glossy blue clots”; bats are “flickering ink blots”; Urdu has 17 words for rain; the mountain air “seems to be made of cellophane.” This weakness for metaphor can get out of hand, and it often does. Cups hanging from hooks can’t be left alone; they have to be like “ripe pears on a branch or an arrangement of bells.” And while the 17 names for rain in Urdu works, other Wikipedia sentences just don’t: climbing up an incline a man is forced to take “a hummingbird’s 300 breaths per minute.” But these are minor annoyances given the abundance of virtuosity, as when, in a tour de force of loneliness, a Pakistani immigrant in England describes the thin stream in her back garden as running “right to left like Urdu.” Or when a character observes that David Town’s shoe soles have become rounded out like erasers, as though “he walks around correcting his mistakes.”
In a recent Guernica interview Aslam emphasized that his writing is deeply political but he is on nobody’s side. All he wants to do is to ask the questions. Afghanistan, Pakistan, terrorism, migrants — these are the symptoms. His real interest lies in probing the root and sap in the soil below — to see if the accretions of history have in fact developed into a connective tissue that binds the Mikals, Michaels, and Mikhails of this world, and whether hate can be rescued by love or honor. Often the blunt answer in his novels is no. But occasionally it is yes. Auden, one of Aslam’s heroes, hailed love as “Eros, builder of cities.” Dunia would have agreed with the poet. A strange tenderness flickers between Casa and her. He disapproves of this schoolteacher who refuses to veil her face and she loathes his violent ideology, but they find themselves drawn to each other. Casa tells her the Taliban will destroy America in the way the USSR was destroyed. America cannot be destroyed, she replies. “The Soviet Union was hated by its own people. The USA is loved by its people so it can’t be destroyed.” But they want to obliterate Islam, he stubbornly persists, so we must destroy them before they destroy us. Islam is safe, Dunia tells him. “For the same reason. Muslims love Islam. But Muslims hate fundamentalism. That can be destroyed.”
And that is why the Taliban is so mortally afraid of Malala and Dunia and the village schoolteacher who wrote 197 letters.