Friday, February 27, 2009

Replaying The Great Game

This is from the January-February issue of Biblio.


In a recent analysis for The New York Times, Michael Gordon, the paper’s chief military correspondent, noted that “Afghanistan presents a unique set of problems: a rural-based insurgency, an enemy sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan, the chronic weakness of the Afghan government, a thriving narcotics trade, poorly developed infrastructure, and forbidding terrain.”

With his third novel, The Wasted Vigil, Nadeem Aslam takes it upon himself to demonstrate the validity of that statement in recent history through a set of characters from different backgrounds, all indelibly changed by the country that has been called, not without justification, the Graveyard of Empires.

There’s the 70-year-old Marcus Caldwell, doctor and perfume creator, an Englishman who’s spent most of his life in Afghanistan, suffering the loss of a wife, a daughter and a hand, yet remaining as stoic as his Roman namesake. There’s Lara, who arrives in the country to search for her missing brother, once a part of the Soviet Army at the time of their ill-fated excursion. There’s David, an American gems dealer and CIA operative, who’s mourning the loss of Zameen, Marcus’ daughter. And, among others, there’s Casa – short for Casabianca – the brainwashed and bitter Afghan jihadi, whose actions provide the spark that sets off a further conflagration in everyone’s lives.

All of these people, linked together in ways known and unknown, assemble for different reasons at Marcus’ large house in a relatively isolated part of the country near Jalalabad and in the shadow of the Tora Bora mountains. This dwelling, with its underground perfume factory, nearby lake and freight of resonant memories, becomes the theatre against which their tragedies are played out, and the narrative moves back and forth in time to create an effect of delayed, unhurried denouements that link the effects of the British conquest, the Soviet invasion, the depredations of the Taliban and the attacks by the US-led forces. As Aslam puts it at one point, “More and more these days, Lara’s interest is caught by personalities and events on the edges of wars, by lives that have yet to arrive at one of history’s conflicts, or those that have moved away from the conflagration – the details of lives being lived with a major battle occurring just over the horizon, or on the mountain above them.”

Less compelling, however, is the introduction of two other characters puzzlingly and relatively late in the book: Dunia, a spirited young schoolteacher on the run from fundamentalists for her allegedly freethinking ways, and James Palantine, part of an American special forces team in Afghanistan and the son of David’s sometime associate. These, along with a corrupt cleric and the actions of skirmishing regional warlords, seem to primarily serve the purpose of moving the action along and introducing more facile points of view at play in the beleaguered land. And Aslam belabours the point, “It is possible here to lift a piece of bread from a plate and, following it back to its origins, collect a dozen stories concerning war – how it affected the hand that pulled it out of the oven, the hand that kneaded the dough, how war impinged upon the field where the wheat was grown.”

There are many vivid images to be found in the pages of The Wasted Vigil, among them the spectacle of a cache of water bottles submerged in a lake: water concealed within water; the unearthing of paintings on walls smeared with mud to prevent them from being destroyed; and, most strikingly, a huge Gandharan statue of the Buddha half-submerged in a basement. As a counterpoint, there are many brutal episodes, with mutilations, torture, rape and stoning to death being an inextricable part of the narrative. All of which go a long way in underlining Aslam’s aim of portraying the country’s current state: “Where Richard the Lionheart displayed brute strength by breaking an iron bar with his sword, Saladin’s delicately sharp scimitar countered it by slicing a silk handkerchief in two. What had been lost is the desire to believe in and take pride in Saladin’s gentleness.”

Throughout, Aslam essays a lofty, semi-mythic tone in his statements about the country, contrasting a glorious past with a parlous present. For example, “…this land that Alexander the Great had passed through on his unicorn, an area of fabled orchards and thick mulberry forests, of pomegranates that appear in the border decorations of Persian manuscripts written one thousand years ago.” Then again, “This country has always been a hub of things moving from one point of the compass to another, religion and myth, works of art, caravans of bundled Chinese silk flowing past camels loaded with glass from ancient Rome or pearls from the Gulf.” And there’s yet more: “The lapis lazuli of their land was always desired by the world, brushed by Cleopatra on to her eyelids, employed by Michelangelo to paint the blues on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel…”

The prose frequently tips over from the simply poetic to the unnecessarily lush. Some of the metaphors are arresting, being based on a specific reality: an explosion causes “the blades of a ceiling fan to curl up like a tulip”. At other moments, however, Aslam can be effete: “The beauty of the rose is considered a medicine. Healing through sight, through the act of looking with all veils swept aside”. Such lushness is accentuated by the often mannered dialogue: “The forgiveness of the weak is the air you strong ones breathe”. Not exactly guaranteed to leave the reader breathless.

The character of Casa, moreover, is more of a cipher than anything else, with his brainwashed and callous attitude predominating: “At the very core of him was the belief that human beings had little to offer but cruelty and danger”. It must be said that Aslam does show us moments when the putative terrorist reflects on his mindset with a degree of hesitation, but these are too few and unconvincing. (Those who have made similar attempts earlier have come up with equally middling results, such as John Updike with Terrorist and Martin Amis, with the short story, ‘The Last Days of Mohammed Atta’.)

Aslam’s heart is on his sleeve throughout these pages and, by means of some fervent late-stage Romanticism, he shows us a clear demarcation between the love stories of poetic, sensitive wanderers on the one hand, and the aims of brutal men who would be kings on the other. Those that succumb are “wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,” as Kipling put it more than a century ago.

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