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.
Aslam’s previous novel, The Wasted Vigil (2008), was also set in present-day Afghanistan and made effective use of a 25- year time span blending various stories. Its polemical intent was obvious, if more skilfully handled than it is in this new book, which succeeds quite brilliantly for the first 200 pages, only to falter in the later half. Nadeem Aslam is a gifted writer, an honest witness with the eye of a poet. His prose is delicate and lyrical, rich in flowers, birds, stars, pages of the Koran and classical allusions, even when describing violent acts of appalling cruelty. Afghan villagers, emboldened by the arrival of US special-forces units, catch a spy meeting a Taliban member. Both are forced to the ground. “Every ounce of rage – every rape, every disappearance, every public execution, every hand amputated during . . . the Taliban regime . . . was poured into the two men by fist, club, stick, foot and stone, and when they finished and dispersed nothing remained of the pair. It was as if they had been eaten.”
At times in this new novel it seems as if Afghanistan has become a modern Troy. Tara, one of the least convincing characters, remarks: “The world is a dangerous place.” The sentence could be a refrain not only for this novel but for Aslam’s vision of Islamic society, which has expanded from the domestic intimacy of his first two novels, Seasons of the Rainbirds (1993) and the superb Maps for Lost Lovers (2004), to a wider, more complex stage.
Freeing the birds
Early in the action a stranger arrives at Rohan’s home, requesting to set up snares in the trees. “I am known as the bird pardoner . . . The freed bird says a prayer on behalf of the one who has bought its freedom. And God never ignores the prayers of the weak.” The symbolism of the freed birds is immediately overwhelmed by the obvious irony. The prayers of the weak are repeatedly ignored in a novel that is as violent as it is perversely beautiful. It has to be conceded that Aslam’s greatest strength and weakness as a writer is that no matter how harsh the action described, which includes an insane drive across a burning bridge, his prose is gloriously seductive. This insistent lyricism eventually begins to undermine the narrative as the plotting weakens.
Rohan is unconvinced by the bird pardoner, reflecting: “The bigger the sin, the rarer and more expensive the bird that is needed to erase it.” The old teacher is a thinker. His garden is a paradise, yet even it conceals deceptions, however well-intentioned. Rohan believes that he and Jeo, now a medical student, are about to travel together to the border city of Peshawar to help tend wounded and injured Afghans fleeing their country, which is being “torn apart by bombs and fire-shells”. But Jeo is lying. He intends to travel on into Afghanistan with his stepbrother, Mikal, with whom he has been reunited after an unspoken separation on Mikal’s part because he had once loved Jeo’s wife, Naheed. Jeo and Mikal plan on joining the Afghan cause.
The plot is relatively simple, even theatrical; the dialogue is often stagy, as Aslam is far more concerned with mood, emotion and moral choice. Yet there are episodes of staggering clarity.
Concealed horses are remembered, bursting out of the earth. Jeo experiences pain “he could not have imagined” and notices the blossoms on his attacker’s dress. “How easy it is to create ghosts, he thinks as he begins to die a minute later, feeling his mind closing chamber by chamber . . . Just before the world vanishes, a hope surfaces in him . . . that he will return somehow.” Elsewhere, Rohan, having had pulverised stone grit thrust into his eyes, stumbles and realises he is blind. A man’s fate is sealed when his sister-in-law unwittingly calls him by name, identifying him for his killers.
Mikal survives pain and torture, initially by Afghan warlords and then by US interrogators, to be asked: “Where are you going? Where is your home?” His reply is prophetic: “I don’t know. I am alone.”
Mikal does return briefly to a storybook normality. But Aslam makes a daring decision and sets Mikal, not quite an Everyman, not quite a hero, although damned with a desperate sense of honour, on a bizarre odyssey culminating in the rescue of a US soldier. It adds an exciting, if implausible, dimension to the narrative, which then becomes tediously ensnared in logistics such as the unlikely stoicism of a snow-leopard cub or the fact that an old truck appears to run on hope in the absence of any conventional fuel.
As a novel The Blind Man’s Garden lacks the compelling artistic cohesion of The Wasted Vigil. It is not as brilliantly choreographed as the Indian writer Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s reimagining of Antigone, also set in Afghanistan, The Watch (2012). Still, there is no disputing the passion and urgency of Nadeem Aslam’s work. Its elegantly raw humanity appeals to the soul, as does this fractured, important novel.