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Book Review

The Blind Man's Garden by Nadeem Aslam

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Publisher: Faber & Faber, paperback

1 of 1 Episodes of gruesome violence, . . but Aslam can contemplate nature in all its vibrant life and colour too
Episodes of gruesome violence, . . but Aslam can contemplate nature in all its vibrant life and colour too

A dedicated, perfectionist craftsman, Nadeem Aslam was born in in 1966 in Gujranwala, an industrial city in the north-east of the Punjab province. He arrived in Britain in 1980 with his family who had fled Zia's regime and settled in Huddersfield.

Aslam taught himself to write in English and his style at this stage in his career has unashamedly florid and luxuriant elements. Indeed one critic talks of “operatic effusion,” but Aslam is at heart a compelling story-teller of great emotional intelligence.

His first novel, Season of the Rainbirds (1993) had a rural Pakistan setting, and it won the Betty Trask and the Author’s Club First Novel Award. Aslam spent ten years writing his second novel Maps for Lost Lovers (2004) which vividly evoked the life of an immigrant Pakistani family living in a North of England town, with strong autobiographical elements.

The characters were delineated with striking contrast and remarkable clarity, the father a sceptical communist, the mother a devout Muslim, desperately trying to keep her family pure and chaste, against the odds. Maps for Lost Lovers was long-listed for the Booker Prize, and shortlisted for the IMPAC Prize. The novel won the Kiriyama Prize and the Encore Award.

Aslam’s third novel, The Wasted Vigil followed in 2008, an equally compelling tale, but more philosophical in orientation. While it had its share of terror and conflict, it seemed curiously static at times in terms of action. Yet, in terms of its scope, it seemed more adventurous than Maps for Lost Lovers, and it is a more reflective work than its predecessor.

In The Wasted Vigil, Lara, a Russian woman arrives at the house of Marcus Caldwell, a widowed Englishman who lives in a disused perfume factory near the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan. Lara understands that Marcus' daughter, Zameen, may have known Lar’s brother, a Soviet soldier who disappeared in the area. But it turns out that Zameen too is dead, so the trail is colder than she had hoped. But she continues in her desperate quest to find news of her brother.

The Wasted Vigil was enthusiastically celebrated by the critics. "There are episodes in the book so intense, so gruesome, that you have to close it and breathe before you can start again,” wrote Mohammed Hanif in The Independent. “ Similarly, there are poetic images so stunning that you pause and read again to savour the sheer beauty of the language. This will be read as a novel about Afghanistan, but it should be read as a book about love."

Aslam’s latest novel, the 400-page The Blind Man’s Garden is set in the months following 9/11, so it is a historical novel. Rohan, blind scholar, teacher and devout Muslim is mourning his wife who died twenty years ago, days after giving birth to their son Jeo. He has serious scruples too about things he did in the name of Islam.

Meanwhile, leaving his own wife to run the household in his absence, Jeo and his foster brother Mikal secretly enter Afghanistan, intending to help civilians who have been wounded in strikes by the coalition invaders. (In October 2001, many thousands of Pakistanis did in fact volunteer to help the victims of the American bombing of Afghanistan and made their way across the border.)

On the day after they enter Afghanisatan, Jeo and Mikal are unfortunately discovered and subsequently sold to the Taliban. Episodes of gruesome violence on the battlefield follow, rocket launchers and bloodshed and strife, deaths of children painful to absorb.

Yet Aslam can contemplate nature in all its vibrant life and colour too, naming, for instance, in all the shades of red, or delighting in the carnations, almonds, roses, lotuses in Rohan’s garden. He weaves religious faith and legend into his tale, and history too, as he refers back to the days of the Raj and the Second World War to contextualise action and motive.

With its carefully balanced elements and sub-plots, The Blind Man’s Garden is thrilling and compelling, and leavened too with the lyrical, philsophical impulse that made The Wasted Vigil such a reflective and wise work. Religion suffuses much of Aslam's tale, and the character of Rohan in particular affords the reader a remarkable insight into the power of the Koran for its believers.

Paddy Kehoe

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