Conflict and cultivation
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.