‘There are no innocent people in a guilty nation’: Nadeem Aslam
From the opening few pages of reading a Nadeem Aslam novel, I knew his writing was something to treasure and behold. Serendipitously, I used my then-day job to bring the Pakistan-born, British-educated-and-domiciled Aslam over the Pond to be a featured guest at the then-annual South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival (SALTAF) at the Smithsonian Institution. In SALTAF’s eight-year history at the Smithsonian, Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers — published stateside just in time for his appearance — is the only book that has ever sold out its sizable inventory before the lunch break. Never before or since has another SALTAF author commanded such exceptional sales.
The Smithsonian reading public’s sophisticated taste resonated far beyond: Maps for Lost Lovers won the Kiriyama Prize, was longlisted for the Booker, shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Award, and named a New York Times Notable Book. Maps is a contemplative, intimate look at a Pakistani community in northern England — self-named “Dasht-e-Tanhaii,” meaning “The Wilderness of Solitude” or “The Desert of Loneliness” — where a pair of unmarried lovers go missing. Five months later, the woman’s brothers are charged with their murder, and the man’s older brother must bring not only the families, but their reeling community, back together.
After discovering Maps, I instantly declared groupie status: Aslam is one of less-than-a-handful of personal favorite authors whose latest title causes nervous paralysis. For fear of the potentially long wait ahead until the next book (because there must always be a next book!), I agonize for months, even years, before actually daring to open certain authors’ newest titles.
Three years following Maps, in 2008, The Wasted Vigil hit U.S. shelves; I waited almost five years to finally read the novel. In fact, until I had this year’s The Blind Man’s Gardenin hand, I couldn’t even peek at Vigil‘s first page. What I eventually discovered was a book of extremes: Aslam wields his language like a weapon, his mellifluous prose in cutting contrast to the horrific acts witnessed in the name of God, patriotism, honor, truth, and even love. Weaving in and out of the turbulent decades of Afghanistan’s modern history,Vigil gathers the interconnected stories of four disparate lost souls — Marcus, a septuagenarian British ex-pat doctor; Lara, a Russian widow searching for her late brother; David, a former CIA operative; and Casa, an injured young fundamentalist Muslim.