Another Afghanistan

<strong>The Wasted Vigil</strong>

Nadeem Aslam <em>Faber & Faber, 384pp, £17.99</em>

In Hana Makhmalbaf's film Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame (2007), which she made when she was 18, the director shows how the war in Afghanistan brutalised children. Little boys gain pride acting out as ruthless Taliban warriors, terrorising a little girl who wants to go to school to learn how to read stories. The film begins with a singular assault on Afghanistan's continuity - the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas - as if to highlight the Taliban's own sense of insecurity and inferiority: they can establish themselves only by erasing the past.

Nadeem Aslam's enthralling new novel, The Wasted Vigil, is about remembering the past. His characters find themselves in a house in ruins but fragrant with memories and humanity. At one level, they are stand-ins for the forces that have shaped modern Afghanistan - an English doctor, a Russian woman, an American gem trader, another American spy, an Afghan woman who wants to run a school, and a troubled Afghan who wants to rid his country of all foreigners and non-believers. Placing such an extraordinary, and arguably unlikely, cast of wounded people in one shattered home is risky: in less qualified hands it could become prosaic.

But, like Michael Ondaatje in The English Patient before him, Aslam knows how to handle the rich material in front of him, because he is not merely a novelist; he is an artist and a poet. Like a miniaturist, he deftly guides his readers to the fine area of detail, illuminating a truth that would otherwise get overlooked in any other sweeping saga, which tried to box a nation's narrative that stretches back to the time of Alexander and how civilisations have blended. Alexander's name, Aslam reminds us, can be glimpsed in the town Kandahar, just as he notes Ahmed in Anna Akhmatova's name. And like a poet, Aslam uses words judiciously, creating arresting images of harrowing beauty. Horrible things happen here - decapitations, death by stoning, skinning people alive - but those who survive that pain have the humanity to overcome the brutality. A hungry man won't eat the bulbul, because how could you eat a bird that sings?

Almost every individual we encounter in the novel - Marcus the doctor, of course, whose wife and daughter have been killed, but also Lara, who comes looking for her brother, a former Red Army soldier, and David, a gem dealer who was once a spy - is broken and incomplete. Aslam draws us close to their lives. He needs only a gesture or a hint to foretell pain: the telling glance of an imam who is hastily burying his wife hoping no one is looking, so that he can marry again, when two young lovers spot him. And the imam recognises them by the fragrance of the girl's perfume. He will then name them to the Soviet army, which comes looking for the mujahedin who have blown up a school. The girl is taken away, altering Marcus's life - she is his daughter.

The past is buried in the house, but it lies just beneath the surface, or stuck on the ceiling. There are images on the walls of the house, but Marcus has smeared mud over them because the Taliban do not permit art. His wife has nailed all their books on the ceiling, piercing them, so that they may not be destroyed, so that they remain rooted in this house of words, protecting them from the book burners. Aslam writes with pain about those books: "A spike driven through the pages of history, a spike through the pages of love, a spike through the sacred."

Aslam shows command over the region's history, but he treads over it lightly, not burying his readers under an avalanche of facts and dates; rather, he lets the history seep through the reader's consciousness by recalling Alexander, Babur, Tatars and others whose cavalries have crossed the mountainous terrain. The novel is rich with literary allusion - Lara, the Russian woman's name, is not coincidental, and Aslam reminds us of Virgil and Prospero: his characters are all well read and, as such, their reference points are naturally redolent of the literature of centuries, in itself mocking the Taliban, which would destroy the knowledge and wisdom not found in the Quran.

Aslam has perfected the technique of kneading language even when he portrays grotesque reality. In his Kiriyama Prize-winning novel, Maps for Lost Lovers, Aslam told the story of honour killings with poignant grace, ennobling the lovers while making the reader feel appalled about their killing, combining sorrow and desire. The Wasted Vigil is a delicate work of art, a tapestry, which connects people in a mesmerising story of loss, memory and pain, but where humanity and love and its fra gility emerge out of the debris.

At one point Aslam writes how the sandalwood emits fragrance only after the tree is cut, like the soul leaving a dead body. The novel will stay with the reader long after it ends. Afghan istan has heart-rending beauty, and it has withstood invasions since the beginning of time. The Wasted Vigil is an attempt to heal those wounds, offering us the hope that creativity, imagination, and love, may still offer that troubled land a future in which the birds would sing, butterflies wouldn't be mined, toys wouldn't explode, girls would go to school, and the Buddha would smile again.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran