Digging for beauty in the garden of good and evil
In his latest book, Nadeem Aslam features a snow leopard (pictured) as a 'symbol of a spoiled Eden and the fact that we're not paying attention to these other creatures that we are privileged enough to share the planet with'. Main Photograph: Steve Winter, Getty Images/National Geographic
In his latest book, Nadeem Aslam (pictured) features a snow leopard as a 'symbol of a spoiled Eden and the fact that we're not paying attention to these other creatures that we are privileged enough to share the planet with'. Main Photograph: Steve Winter, Getty Images/National Geographic
In his latest novel, Nadeem Aslam says he wanted to write the story of Pakistan and the enormous price it has paid in the war on terror, writes ARMINTA WALLACE
Terrible things happen in Nadeem Aslam’s novels. Young women are beaten, subjected to exorcisms, murdered by their families in the name of a loving god. Young boys are raped. People are blown up by landmines, have limbs amputated by warlords, are tortured by the Taliban or by American soldiers. But Aslam’s books also contain observations of radiant beauty.
A gold bracelet is “a series of semi-colons”. Moths are “shavings from a pencil sharpener”. The scent of a tree’s flowers “can stop conversation”.
Born in Pakistan, Aslam moved to the UK at 14 when his father, a poet and film producer, was exiled for his Communist beliefs.
“I’m a political creature,” he says. “I vote every time I write a sentence. Some novelists will say they begin with the storyline, or the characters, or, it differs from book to book. With me it always is the subject matter. I wanted to write about honour killings, so I wrote Maps for Lost Lovers. I wanted to write about Afghanistan, so I wrote The Wasted Vigil. I wanted to write about Pakistan, so I wrote The Blind Man’s Garden.
“For me the subject matter always comes first – and then I go to look for characters who will help me to combine the various complexities, layers, hopes and moments of despair within that subject matter. The subject matter is the easy thing.”
The story of Pakistan
The Blind Man’s Garden tells the story of Jeo and Mikal, foster brothers from a small town in Pakistan who secretly enter Afghanistan to help care for wounded civilians. Unknown to them, they have been betrayed before they even set out, with catastrophic results not just for themselves but for their ageing father and for Jeo’s young wife Naheed.
“I wanted to write the story of Pakistan,” Aslam says. “People seem to have forgotten that Pakistan has paid an enormous price for the war on terror. I mean, 40,000 people have been killed in the past 10 years. We have lived through an extraordinary decade, beginning with 9/11 and ending with the Arab spring.”
The Blind Man’s Garden takes a conventional scenario – idealistic young men go off to war – and turns it on its head. It is also a tale of star-crossed lovers. Both Jeo and Mikal are in love with Naheed, and the twists and turns of the narrative take the reader inside the heads of all three.
“My instinct always is to write a love story,” Aslam says. “In the book, the two lovers are apart until three-quarters of the way through. Naheed utters what, for me, is the key sentence of the novel. She says, ‘It been four hundred and seventy-nine days since I saw you last. I feel like I have been in four hundred and seventy-nine wars.’”