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.’”
Having set himself the task of creating a literature of conscience, how does Aslam go about the business of balancing the world’s brutality with its beauty?
“Well, that is the challenge,” he says. “I think it would be falsifying the situation to say things are not terrible in Pakistan. People say that the books are brutal. Someone said to me that they seem quite hopeless. I said, ‘Look. I don’t want to romanticise the situation and say that everything is fine.’ But really, if you read The Blind Man’s Garden, you see how everyone in the story, when he or she is dropped into this terrible situation, when you see their behaviour, they say, ‘I will act with dignity. I will act with honour.’ The world tells them, ‘There is a way out of this. Be corrupt. Lie. Betray.’ And they say, ‘No. No. No.’ That is where the hope is.”
The natural world
Only the good guys, needless to say, behave with integrity – and even the good guys have their dodgy moments. But the good guys in Aslam’s books are recognisable by the intensity of their relationship with the natural world. Having studied biochemistry for three years at the University of Manchester, Aslam knows his moths from his butterflies. He is also a painter, and has a poet’s eye into the bargain. When he’s describing a snowfall in the north of England or the tiniest leaves at the tip of a tree branch, his writing becomes breathtakingly luminous.
This is not, he says, a question of decoration. “I use lots of images which help me reinforce my storytelling. There is a dreamy intensity to my prose. I work quite hard on that. But I don’t want to examine it too much.”
One of the characters in The Blind Man’s Garden is a snow leopard cub. “At one level it is just a snow leopard,” he says. “There are any number of them in Pakistan, and people have them for pets. Warlords have them for pets. But it could also be a kind of 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.”
The garden of the title also carries several layers of meaning. It was created by Rohan, father of Jeo and foster father to Mikal.
“Sometimes a garden is a garden is a garden,” Aslam says. “In this book I wanted to talk about the birds and the beehives and the flight pattern of a particular bird. But if the reader wishes to delve into the deeper layers of meaning in the novel, the garden could also be Pakistan.
“Here we have this Eden which this man created in the name of Islam. He goes to the six glorious Islamic cities – Mecca, Cordoba, Baghdad, Cairo, Delhi and Istanbul – and he brings back a handful of dust and he scatters them into this piece of land, and he and his wife plant a garden there.
“And then, as the years go by, the garden becomes corrupted, because it is taken over by the various fundamentalist strands of Islam. In the novel it’s very important to me that I should bring in as many facets of Islam as I can.”
In the novels, as in life, it is the extremists who make the most noise. But the small kindnesses of everyday heroism are to be found in the mud, sweat and tears of these stories, glowing like rare gemstones. And the determination to keep on digging for them appears to be central to Aslam’s worldview.
“Despair has to be earned,” he says. “If you say Pakistan is a failed state, or Pakistan is really bad, or the entire world is hopeless, I want to see the record of how you tried to change those things. I want to see that you tried it once, you tried it 10 times, you tried it a hundred times, you tried it a thousand times. If, having tried so many times, you fail – well, I might be slightly sympathetic. The fact of the matter is, if you are someone who has been trying all of his or her life, and has been beaten down by the various systems of the world, you would never say that the world is unsalvageable.
“You would say, ‘Let me try one more time’.”
The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam is published by Faber Faber
Aslam for beginners
Maps for Lost Lovers
Set in an English town dubbed Dasht-e-Tanhaii (The Wilderness of Loneliness) by its large community of Pakistani migrants, this bittersweet book could be described as family saga meets murder mystery.
The Wasted Vigil
An English widower and Muslim convert, Marcus Caldwell, lives in a former perfume factory in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan.
One day a young Russian woman, Lara, arrives in search of her brother, a Soviet soldier who disappeared in the area. Marcus’s wife and daughter have also disappeared. But an American named David Town – gemstone expert? CIA agent? – is very much present, as is a young Talib named Casa. The Wasted Vigil uses many of the tropes of the Cold War spy thriller, as well as the almost Agatha Christie-like setting of Marcus’s house, to tell a haunting tale of our times.
Jugnu and Chanda have disappeared, presumed murdered by Chanda’s brothers, who can’t accept them living in sin. Meanwhile, Jugnu’s brother Shamas and his strictly observant wife Kaukab have their own problems: their children have left the family home to make their way in the world outside.
Kaukab steals the show here. She should be, and in some ways is, a monster, but is also devastatingly effective in her flawed humanity.