Robin Yassin-Kassab

Two Reviews

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Two reviews, one harsh and critical, one brief and bright.

I met Nadeem Aslam in Southampton, and spent an evening and a morning having wonderful conversations with him. When I told him I’d written a bad review of his latest book (half of it is bad) for the National (in Abu Dhabi) he was not in the least bitter, not even for a moment. I am not such a successful human being. I would have been convulsed with rage and venom for at least three hours, and then ill with it for weeks. He just wanted to know why I didn’t like the book. Well, it’s partly the politics, and quite a lot to do with characterisation. Then my review may be fierce precisely because I think he’s a major writer, and therefore fair game. (But I don’t think he’s fair game after meeting him, such a lovely man he is; I hang my head in shame). The negativity of the review may also have something to do with me responding to my own perceived failures as a writer.

And damn, they pay you to squeeze out an opinion, so opinionate is what you do.

The problem with writing a book review after you’ve had a book published is that it seems as if you’re suggesting you could outwrite the writer you’re criticising. Ironically, now that I should be more qualified to write about novels, I feel less qualified. Or at least worried that I’m setting myself up. Anyway.

The National gave me lots of words. Then tonight I heard that Metro / Amazon Book Club wants an immediate review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. As I had three minutes to do it, and as it was unpaid, I hacked away at a post I’d done on this blog last December, until I had 250 naked and cheery words. Here’s the original post. And here’s the 250 words:

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Many treatments of the post-9/l1 situation focus only on Western self-absorption. Not so ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid, which engages with the darknesses and resentments of the world beyond our narrow conceptions of it.

It is a confessional narrative, told by a Pakistani to an American in a Lahore restaurant. The anguished self-revelation of Hamid’s Changez is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s ‘Notes From Underground’, but Changez is a fundamentally balanced character. It’s the times, and the empire, that are out of joint, and Changez’s story is of righting himself by retreating from America. Educated at Princeton and working for a company which values businesses due to be sold off and stripped, Changez finds himself smiling when he sees the twin towers falling. This prompts a deepening examination of his identity, his allegiances, and his relationship with America and his depressed and ‘devoutly glowing’ American girlfriend. Parallels are implied between Muslim countries and the doomed employees of the companies Changez values. The key here is not religion, but traumatic economic change. Changez’s boss Jim says, “We came from places that were wasting away.” He means, on the one hand, Pakistan, and on the other, old industrial America. The title is not very apt. There is very little theology in the book. By the end of the story Changez is not at all an Islamist, but discovers he has to oppose the corporate American empire in order to remain mentally and morally healthy. Provocative, clarifying and immensely readable, this is a book that shouldn’t be missed.

And now here’s the savagery, for which I crave forgiveness:

The Wasted Vigil

“The Wasted Vigil”, the latest novel by acclaimed British-Pakistani writer Nadeem Aslam, is concerned with Afghanistan, that vast human tragedy representing the moral and practical failure of all concerned, Muslim and Christian, Arab and Pakistani, Russian and American. War-torn and occupied Afghanistan is enough to enrage anyone. A novelist, however, must produce more than rage.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11, planned by al-Qa’ida leaders in Afghanistan, affected Nadeem Aslam personally. He told the Independent of his feelings of guilt: “I asked myself whether in my personal life and as a writer I had been rigorous enough to condemn the small scale September 11s that go on every day.”

Detaching 9/11 from its political context, Aslam understood all crimes committed in the name of Islam to be subsumed into one category, and so saw patriarchal bullying within the family or the overbearing social pressure of a suspicious neighbourhood as forms almost of Islamist terrorism, mini September 11s. His highly praised second novel had dealt with precisely these prosaic atrocities. “Maps for Lost Lovers” is a portrait of a tortured and self-tormenting Pakistani community in the north of England. The community calls itself Dasht-e-Tanhaii or Desert of Loneliness; it’s working class and inward looking, bound by secrets and taboos, fearing and hating the white world beyond its walls. The atrocities enacted include an honour killing, a brutal ‘exorcism’, paedophilia in the mosque, and wife beating – each episode based on real events culled from the newspapers. Yet the threat of violence in Aslam’s Lonely Desert is ultimately incapable of holding lovers back from the passion of life. Here is the novel’s great beauty: in the exuberance of individual desire and the capacity of characters to break out of their cages, as well as in the poetry of moths and flowers that cloaks Alsam’s post-industrial town with an Urdu-tinted mantle of transcendence. Elegant and agonising, the novel was perhaps unbalanced in its unrelenting focus on crimes of honour, and failed to show how the meanings of Islam are contested within Muslim communities by liberal, fundamentalist and traditionalist Muslims, by feminists and misogynists, leftists and rightists, but it was written with love and the deep knowledge of an insider. He writes about parents and children in the way we all probably think of our own parents and children – with simultanous compassion, admiration and revulsion. The characters are complex and sympathetic even when their behaviour is cruel, and their cruelty is always subtly contextualised. Each is a breathing individual, deeply human, credible on their own terms whatever the writer’s message may be.

In the same Independent interview, Aslam spoke of the visceral sense of responsibility he felt as a Muslim for the murderous excesses of other Muslims: “We moderate Muslims have to stand up,” he said. “I feel that a game of Hangman is being played on an enormous scale in the world, and that sooner or later I’m going to be asked certain questions, and if I don’t give the right answer somebody is going to get hurt.”

“The Wasted Vigil” concentrates on the murderous excesses of Afghanistan, a land where Muslim violence reaches out of private homes and into the enormous scale of the skies.

What made this violence erupt? The CIA began funding and arming right-wing Islamists in Afghanistan even before the Soviet invasion in December 1979, in an effort to “increase the probability” that the Russians would intervene. In the resulting war perhaps two million Afghans died and up to five million fled the country. Afghanistan lost its infrastructure and its educated class. The Russians were eventually driven out, only to be replaced by squabbling ‘mujahideen’ warlords who terrorised the population in the course of their private vendettas. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, with the approval of the United States, backed the Taliban, who made the roads safer and stopped opium cultivation, but at a huge cost. In a perverse marriage of the worst of the Deobandi and Wahhabi theological traditions, the Taliban’s boy commanders declared an Afghan year zero. Men were imprisoned for having ‘unIslamic haircuts’. Women were forbidden to leave the house unaccompanied. All ‘ungodly innovations’, from kite flying to television, were banned. After 9/11, American policy shifted 180 degrees. A new set of warlords were brought to power and the Kabul bourgeoisie was partially liberated.

Today Afghanistan remains mired in war, corruption and poverty. The latest foreign occupation wants to educate the Afghans out of their barbarism, but doesn’t recognise that every prior foreign occupation has dramatically increased that barbarism. The Taliban, almost universally hated a few years ago, are resurgent in the guise of a national liberation movement.

Nadeem Aslam presents this outrage through the eyes of foreigners whose lives are painfully tied to the country. Marcus Caldwell, an Englishman aged and bearded like “a prophet in wreckage”, welcomes a succession of wounded characters to his house near Tora Bora. These visitors are both connected and divided by bitter secrets, shared loss, and burning questions. What has become of Marcus’s Afghan wife, his daughter, and most brutally, his hand? What of the Russian woman Lara’s brother, a missing Soviet soldier? Or of ex-spy David’s brother, or his lover, Marcus’s daughter, Zameen? And what of David’s son, Marcus’s grandson? The sad answers to these mysteries are revealed gradually throughout a narrative of flashbacks, on a canvas stretching as far as Islamabad, New York and Saint Petersburg.

At its best, “The Wasted Vigil” is a lament for what has been destroyed: the traces of Afghanistan’s Buddhist and Sufi past, its tradition of miniaturist art, its myths and stories, its delicate intermingling of histories like the scents in a blended perfume. And Aslam is at his best when generating startling images and extended metaphors. Perhaps the novel’s key character is the house itself, Marcus’s house in which the art and architecture of each room represents one of the five senses. Books fall in a random literary rain from the ceilings, to which they were nailed by Marcus’s tragedy-maddened wife to save them from the Taliban. The walls are covered in paintings which in turn are covered with mud, to protect them from fundamentalist vandals. But some are visible:

“Several of the lovers on the wall were on their own because of the obliterating impact of the bullets – nothing but a gash or a terrible ripping away where the corresponding man or woman used to be. A shredded limb, a lost eye.”

This blurring of art and reality works well in a context where cultural violence and murder jog hand in hand – the Taliban’s attacks on the Bamyan Buddhas and Sufi shrines, the American tanks crushing the ancient walls of Ur in Iraq. In the lands of America’s wars, genocide is indistinguishable from historicide.

The house hides a secret Buddha underground as Afghanistan hides its Buddhist past. Afghanistan itself is figured as a collapsed building in which “everyone’s life now lies broken at different levels within the rubble.”

Aslam excels in the poetic crossing of borders, whereby the senses leak into each other and an idea may be conveyed by the beating of a butterfly’s wings. (It may be that this fundamental writerly strength of his also causes the category errors of his political thought, in which bombs leak into beatings and honour killing spreads into mass terrorism). He presents the synaesthesia of a stare so strong it verges on sound, a character with “skin the colour of violins,” and the “weather” of people’s souls. The book bubbles with imagery, from the obvious (caged birds) to the inspired (a camel carrying a car’s burnt-out shell).

But “The Wasted Vigil” is handicapped by characters that are not quite fully imagined, not quite precise enough to convince. Almost interchangeably, the three non-Afghan characters speak and think about gemstones, perfumes and the classics of world literature, sometimes apparently only to give Aslam further opportunities to be poetic. Their voices are not distinctively enough individual. All three can sometimes sound suspiciously like post-9/11 Aslam with his committed anti-Islamist hat on.

There is one major Afghan character: Casa. In his horrifyingly wrongheaded interpretations of Islam, this fundamentalist seldom rises above stereotype. His religion is animated by hatred, for non-Muslims of all varieties as well as traditional Muslims, women, blacks and intellectuals. Such bitter, monomaniac characters doubtless exist in the real world, but Aslam (unlike in “Maps for Lost Lovers”) shows us not much more of their inner lives than we see on the TV news. Casa is partially offset by the walk-on Dunia, a spokeswoman for a more liberal Islam. Other minor Afghan characters include two warlords, a wife-murdering cleric and a duplicitous suicide bomber. The reader is told that ordinary Afghans despise the fundamentalists, but rarely sees these people up close in their daily struggles.

“There’s no message in my books,” Aslam told the Independent, but here he appears to have broken his rule. The free indirect style – by which the narrator experiences the world through his characters – breaks down, and the author breaks in, sometimes with thoroughly questionable generalisations (“The religion of Islam at its core does not believe in the study of science”) and orientalist falsehoods (Syria and Egypt suffered cultural collapse when the first Muslims arrived) – although some characters do temper their opinions as the novel progresses. The book’s final act of violence points to how interconnected western and eastern guilt are in Afghanistan, and how mutual the suffering, but the general approach is unbalanced, not allowing enough voices to challenge either fundamentalist or Western stereotypes.

The style can slip to become an overblown parody of itself. Not every image or beautiful phrase fits snugly in place. It seems that Aslam occasionally chugs these out without reason: why call work ‘work’ when you can call it ‘the labours of the world’? A clunky sentence rhythm is sometimes ruined entirely by repetition, and there is at times floweriness without a restraining economy, so that even explosions and executions lose their impact. The novel should make the reader experience Afghanistan as if it is immediately present; all too often it offers an unchallenging exoticism.

Our times call for fiction which challenges the simplistic assumptions of religious fundamentalists and imperialising secularists alike. Novel writing is always an excruciatingly difficult process, much easier to get wrong than to get right. The difficulty only increases when the novelist seeks to represent Muslims to a non-Muslim audience in an Islamophobic climate. It may be here that Aslam has tripped up, disabled by his strange sense of cultural guilt for 9/11 and by the resultant pressure to rail against the easy target of right wing Islamism. He is an immensely gifted writer, capable of great artistry and feeling, who has already won a large audience. It is a shame, therefore, that this novel remains on the shimmering surface of things. Its reportage feels a bit like CNN with poetry added, or like those technically brilliant Iranian films that seem made for Western film festival judges rather than for a real public. As such, “The Wasted Vigil” is a wasted opportunity.

Here, I wrote on this blog in February, more kindly, about Maps for Lost Lovers:

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 23, 2008 at 12:08 am

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