Robin Yassin-Kassab

Posts Tagged ‘Nadeem Aslam

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.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 23, 2008 at 12:08 am

“Maps for Lost Lovers” and writerly responsibility

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Update 2015: With the passage of time, much of this review embarrasses me. So people and perspectives change. My current view is better summed up by my words at the 2015 Shubbak festival, which Brian Whitaker reports:

There is a beautiful novel called Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam who is Pakistani-British, and I would recommend that everybody reads the novel as a work of literature because it is beautifully, beautifully written and characterised. 

It works as a novel, but there is no good Muslim character in it. They are real characters and you can sympathise with them even when they are doing horrible barbaric things. But they are all doing horrible barbaric things from the moment they get up in the morning, and its the kind of horrible barbaric things that British Pakistanis do that you read about in the Sun newspaper.

So of course there is an issue, but we cant tell Nadeem Aslam that he’s a representative British Pakistani writer and therefore he has to write a nice version of British Pakistanis in order to educate the white population that some of them are all right. He’s writing what he wanted to write about and what was real for him, and he did it really well. I think the critique should focus on the social context. It’s not Nadeem Aslam’s fault so much as the Sun newspaper’s fault.

And here’s the thing I originally wrote:

I’ve recently read Nadeem Aslam’s finely-constructed and richly metaphorical novel “Maps for Lost Lovers”, which portrays a British Pakistani community and its rigid boundaries over a year of daily life and crisis. Save for some occasionally unconvincing dialogue, the writing is beautiful and poetic. Unlike, for example, Martin Amis, Aslam respects his characters, who are well-rounded and complex enough to evoke sympathy even when they behave badly. He shows them busy with gossip, work, poetry – and plenty of murder. For example, a book shop owner is murdered for money by his relatives in Pakistan. At the heart of the book, Chanda and Jugnu are murdered by Chanda’s brothers for ‘living in sin.’ Chanda wants to divorce her husband so she can marry her lover, but her husband has disappeared for years, and she doesn’t know where to. Another girl is murdered by a ‘holy man’ during exorcism-beatings. And so on: a litany of crimes motivated by ‘honour’ and superstition.

One subplot revolves around a woman being forced by sharia law to marry another man before returning to a husband who has divorced her once while drunk. The actual regulation is this: if a man divorces his wife THREE times he cannot remarry her unless she has been married to someone else and that marriage has also collapsed. This is generally understood as a warning to husbands not to divorce their wives without considering the consequences. Furthermore, a divorce announced when the husband is angry or intoxicated is not recognised. As for the stranded Chanda, sharia would automatically grant her a divorce if her husband disappeared for a day longer than a year. Fair enough, Aslam is writing about uneducated people’s partial and skewed understanding of their religion, or of their confusion of tradition and religion, but this point will be lost on non-Muslim readers.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 6, 2008 at 4:23 pm