Love is not consolation, it is light.
While trying to beat the publishing deadline for this book, I thought I will read the ARC copy while I am on holiday in Israel. It is indeed irony to read a book about war (and love) while travelling in a conflict zone in Israel, but that doesn’t bother me that much. ;)
I am not sure if it is me or if it happens to all ARC copies, I feel this disjointed feeling of reading an incoherent story. The chapter breaks and paragraphs breaks can be a bit of a muddle and just when you think it was the first person that the paragraph was referring to, you found out somewhere down the road (or don’t find out where everything continues to be in a bit of a muddle) that the author is referring the next paragraph to the life of another character. It’s quite annoying really. So with that reason, and because of war and the trite cruelty people do to one another in the book, I stopped reading this book for awhile and finished up The Third Son while on holiday.
So it is with this book. It is about a book about war in Afghanistan and families in Pakistan who felt compelled to volunteer and help out in the war, just after the 9/11 attack. There are many voices in this novel, but three main voices are those of Mikal, Naheed and Rohan.
Just invaded Afghanistan, Rohan, an elderly man subsequently became blind due to an unfortunate incident, founded an Islamic school called Ardent Spirit with his wife Sofia.He mourned for his wife death as an apostate and was forced out of the school due to difference in opinion. He has a son named Jeo, daughter Yasmin and adopted a son named Mikal. Jeo and Mikal have concocted a plan, which no one in the family knew beforehand, to cross over to Afghanistan to help war casualties, and all medical supplies, sustenance prepared for the trip.
The opening of the book depicts Jeo, an aspiring doctor is married to Naheed. As we moved along the pages, we soon got to know that Naheed was Mikal’s lover and that she was betrothed to Jeo instead, because her mother Tara’s disapproval of Mikal. It was all a bit melodramatic for me but I persist.
Soon Jeo and Mikal were sold out and fell into the hands of the warlords. The worried Rohan and a friend went out in search for them and put themselves through danger and witness horrifying things the warlords done to their captives. Meanwhile Mikal being captured as a soldier for the warlords leads to more complications, as the Americans raids and infiltrates the warlords stronghold, Mikal will be seen as the enemy, albeit an involuntary one. Will Mikal be safe? Will he make his way back to his beloved Naheed?
I must say reading a novel from Aslam is a very rich experience. Aslam is able to tell you the many breeds of Central Asian mares (Dhanni, Tallagang and Kathiawar mares.), the many names of flowers and plants, the many shades of red (Other shades of red, crimson, vermilion, scarlet, maroon, raspberry, obsidian, russet, plum, magenta, geranium, the tearful eyes of the woman from three doors down...), it narrates the history of the 5th crusades, the British occupation of the terrain, the many wisdom and verses from the Quran and the many names of guns and weapons and many ways you can kill a human being. I have always wanted to read his “The Map of Lost Lovers” which I own and I have no doubt his writing is one of the most gorgeous I have known. Many passages I have to catch my breath and sigh with recognition of the passion that emits through the pages. I have sampled a few here, feel free to skip it if you feel this review is getting too long!
My favourite quotations:
When the apostate dies the spot of earth which is to be his grave cries out in vehemence and pain, unwilling to receive him.
There is a kind of tree whose leaves do not fall, and in that it is like an ideal Muslim. But Allah understands if we don’t succeed in being perfect in this imperfect world. Yemeni stranger said to Mikal.
Good aunt, a dollar is worth 72 Pakistani rupees. Do you know why? Allow me to tell you. It is because each American person loves America 72 times more than each Pakistani person loves Pakistan. That is why.
Life gets in the way of your grief. You make yourself forget about the pain because there are other things to take care of. But when you do remember it….we… it’s a strange kind of hurting, like someone has lost a razorblade inside your soul.
The man stands before him and suddenly burst into laughter, and he doesn’t stop – the soulless glance fixed at Mikal and laughing loudly at him for having made the mess on the floor, for being worthless, forthe disaster that is his love for Naheed, …. for Pakistan and its poverty, a laughter tinged with contempt for him and his nation where the taps don’t have water, and the shops don’t have sugar or rice or flour, the sick don’t have medicines and the cars don’t have petrol, his disgusting repulsive country where everyone it seems is engaged in killing everyone else, a land of revenge attacks, where the butcher sells rotten meat to the milkman and is in turn sold milk whose volume has been increased with lethal white chemicals, and they both sell their meat and their milk to the doctor who prescribes unnecessary medicines in order to win bonuses from the drug companies, and the factory where the drugs are made pours its toxic waste directly into the water supply, into rivers and streams, killing, deforming, blinding, lacerating the sons and daughters of the policeman who himself dies in a traffic accident while he is taking a bribe..[...]…a country full of people whose absolute devotion to their religion is little more than an unshakable loyalty to unhappiness and mean-spiritedness, and the white man continues to laugh with eyes full of hatred and accusation and hilarity and mirth at this citizen of a shameless beggar country full of liars, hypocrites, beaters of women and children and animals and the weak….delusional morons and fools who wanted independence from the British and a country of their own, but who now can’t wait to leave it, emigrate, emigrate, emigrate to Britain, USA, Canada….
and a long list of countries mentioned that Pakistanis have migrated to…
There are doses of magic realism and symbolism here which I admit do go over my head a little. Such as: When Naheed heard of the news of Jeo’s death, “The heron falls onto the ground and makes no effort to stand, its bleeding slowly relaxing along the ground.” left me wondering what exactly was Naheed’s reaction of the news was. The garden at one point of full of suffering birds on snare because the bird pardoner forgot to come back to freed the birds to say prayers on behalf of those who bought the bird’s freedom. There is also this mendicant who goes around wrapped in hundreds of chains, a character that seems to jump straight out from the ghost of The Christmas Carol. It is said each link represents a prayer, and disappears as Allah grants it.
I have mixed feeling about the book. Some parts excellent, some parts a let down. It is not a lot about a Blind Man’s Garden but really it is about how a man who got caught in a fervent calling to fight for a cause he believes in and ended up being apart from his biggest love and subject to many tribulations and torture. Now, why would he do that for? You’d think. I question that too, but I think unless you understand how people think in this part of the world which Aslam is trying to help you with, in this book. Mikal took up the call to sacrifice himself and being apart from Naheed and to protect his nation, he ended up sacrificing one for the other. I also wouldn’t understand why a woman is regarded as “A woman’s heart is soft and trusting, she can be corrupted all too easily.” but reading a book that is set in a different country, we do need to suspend our beliefs and stay open to what is being present between the pages of the novel.
It is an ambitious novel. Made for book awards material. If you can take atrocities with strong stomach and and believe in the pledge of eternal love, I am sure you will find delight in this novel. It is a bleak novel that predicts a bleak ending. I wanted to score it a 3.5 stars initially but I think it deserves more than that for everything this novel wants to be. Recommended for read as an escape from the usuals and the predictables.
“When someone thinks of us, or dreams of us with enough longing and love, we disappear from where we are.”
Many thanks to publisher who sent the book to me via Netgalley in return for an honest review.
E-book. Publisher: Faber & Faber 2013; Printed Length: 416 pages; Setting: Pakistan and Afghanistan. Source: Netgalley ARC copy. Finished reading on: 9th March 2013, Saturday.
About the writer:
Nadeem Aslam (born 1966, Gujranwala, Pakistan) is a prize-winning British Pakistani novelist.
Aslam moved with his family to England aged 14, when his father, a Communist, fled President Zia’s regime. The family settled in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. He later studied biochemistry at the University of Manchester, but left in his third year to become a writer. At 13, Aslam published his first short story in Urdu in a Pakistani newspaper. His debut novel, Season of the Rainbirds (1993), set in rural Pakistan, won the Betty Trask and the Author’s Club First Novel Award. He won widespread praise for his next novel Maps for Lost Lovers (2004) which is set in the midst of an immigrant Pakistani community in an English town in the north. The novel took him more than a decade to complete, and won the Kiriyama Prize.
For Season of the Rainbirds
Betty Trask Award 1994
The Author’s Club First Novel Award 1993
The Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize (shortlist) 1994
The Whitbread First Novel Award (shortlist) 1994
For Maps for Lost Lovers
The Encore Award 2005
The Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize 2005
British Book Awards Decibel Writer of the Year (shortlist) 2006
International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (shortlist) 2006