Conflict and cultivation
FICTION:Set in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, Nadeem Aslam’s latest novel is a brave, passionate narrative, rich in symbolism and hard truths
The Blind Man’s Garden, By Nadeem Aslam, Faber and Faber, 409pp, £18.99
Rage and terror, hope and regret drive the Pakistan-born writer Nadeem Aslam’s powerful fourth novel. As much a lamentation as an action-based romance, it is heavy with the evils committed in the name of religion. He prefaces it with a quote from the Greek tragedian Aeschylus: “But a man’s blood / is dark and mortal. / Once it wets the earth / what song can sing it back?” No song is able to counter fate, and death stalks this operatic narrative, as does history, which Aslam acknowledges as mankind’s third parent.
The Blind Man’s Garden is set in Pakistan and wartorn Afghanistan during the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when men’s minds are full of hatred of the US and of each other as the Taliban terrorise the ordinary people. Everyone has lost a son, a husband or a brother. The attack on the US has resulted in the allied invasion of Afghanistan. Rohan, one of the central characters and creator of the garden of the title, is still battling remorse about his attitude towards his dying wife’s loss of faith. He is preoccupied with his private debate yet remains aware that around him, in Pakistan, people speak of “the Battle of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon”. It deflects any sympathy: “The logic is that there are no innocent people in a guilty nation.”
Rohan is a retired teacher. He finds comfort among his beautiful flowers. His lush, well-tended sanctuary acquires increasingly profound relevance as the narrative ebbs and flows. Along with his regrets, he has his memories, among them a moment from years earlier when his grown son, Jeo, was still a child. The boy had been upset by the arrival of a villain in the story Rohan had been telling him. The father recalls having asked his son: “But have you ever heard a story in which the evil person triumphs at the end?” The little boy had pondered the question before replying: “No, but before they lose, they harm the good people. That is what I am afraid of.” It seems a simple exchange between parent and child, but it’s not. Aslam infuses it with immense significance and it serves as an apt prologue for a brave, passionate narrative that is rich in symbolism and hard truths. Aslam’s message is that men are indeed caught between good and evil and that at a time of communal confusion – such as a war interwoven with internal tribalism and the Taliban menace as well as the presence of an obvious enemy, in this case, the US – few are without sin.