The Wasted Vigil, Anglo-Pakistani author Nadeem Aslam’s ambitious novel about war in Afghanistan, did not arrive unheralded in 2008. Widely reviewed in major media outlets, it was pronounced the first important novel depicting contemporary war in Afghanistan, or, for that matter, Iraq. The Wasted Vigil‘s publication afterlife, however, has been curiously quiet—I’ve seen it referred to only here-and-there in writing about 21st century war fiction and it seems not to have been a significant influence on the rush of American-authored war novels that began appearing in 2011. Reviewing The Wasted Vigil in 2016, then, is a matter of restoring its pride-of-place in the annals of contemporary war literature, exploring the reasons for its semi-obscurity, and taking the measure of its interesting aspects.
The Wasted Vigil is both panoramic in scope and intensively focused in terms of time and place. Major characters include Marcus, a British expatriate entomologist who has lost a wife, a daughter, and a hand to the Taliban; David, an American ex-spy who has lost a brother to war; Lara, a Russian woman whose brother died in Afghanistan; and Casa, a young Taliban jihadist. The secondary cast numbers a variety of Afghan villagers and militia men, US special forces and contracted security operatives, and family members and friends of the American, British, and Russian major characters. The action takes place in and around Marcus’s house near Jalalabad, where Marcus has lived through decades of invasion, civil war, efforts to expel infidels, and the first years of Operation Enduring Freedom. The house, like the highly symbolic edifices found in the works of magical realists such as Gabriel Garcia-Marquez or Salmon Rushdie, to say nothing of Poe’s gothic House of Usher, features a number of fanciful embellishments. In the basement lies a giant Buddha-head and the remnants of a perfume factory—the Buddha-head, though not the perfume factory, has somehow survived the reign of the Taliban. Upstairs, Marcus’s Afghan wife in a fit of insanity has nailed the books in the library to the ceiling, while Marcus himself has lathered with mud the friezes painted on the interior walls to hide them from Taliban scrutiny. Outside, a nearby lake serves David’s Quixotic-Thoreauvian ambition to build by hand a birch-bark canoe, in the midst of the war, with, as it comes to pass, the help of Casa, who has disguised his identity as a Taliban. Aslam stirs this stew of schematic ingredients and serves them up in ways meant to be clearly representative of the failed aspirations of each character’s national and demographic origin. Over the course of a few days, described with frequent flashbacks and explanatory digressions, the hopes of each of the major characters, and in some cases their lives, are destroyed and the fragile polyglot, multinational dream of coexistence comes undone.
The Wasted Vigil reveals all its main characters to be unwitting or witting perpetrators of the fall of the house of Marcus, as well as its victims, but Aslam clearly designates Casa as the primary destroyer of the tenuous social harmony Marcus’s house represents. While other Afghans make decisions and act according to understandable mixtures of personalized desires and search for advantage, influenced by Islam and history but not predetermined by them, Casa is possessed of a diseased worldview that makes him impervious to reason, tolerance, gratitude, or kindness, while sharpening every impulse to wage war on infidels and generating heinous ideas about women. Aslam subtly portrays the thoughts of a young man infected by Talibanism as Casa is exposed to the sacrilegious ways of Marcus’s house and its residents. The end result, though, the default setting so to speak, is always a robotic return to form that drives him to destroy non-believers in the name of Allah. The depiction could not be bleaker; in comparison, Afghan insurgents portrayed in novels such as The Watch, Green on Blue, and The Valley are models of cosmopolitanism. To hope that it might be otherwise, The Wasted Vigil suggests, is foolishness—the unrewarded effort referred to in the novel’s title.
A critic blurbed on the paperback edition of the The Wasted Vigil praises the “sheer, astonishing loveliness” of Aslam’s prose, but a 2008 New York Times review takes Aslam to task for what it perceives as unnecessarily “florid” language in sentences such as, “The pomegranate was on a table close to the fireplace. She slit it open now. The outer layer of scarlet seeds had been warmed by the flames. The temperature of menstrual blood, of semen just emerged from a man’s body.” The reviewer comments: “Perhaps Afghanistan, a place of extremes, invites this overblown style. It certainly seduced Aslam, a writer of considerable talent, into thinking he could render its titanic tragedies by pushing his language into operatic effusion.” Hanging an author by the poor quality of his worst sentences might be churlish, but the critique invites consideration whether Aslam just tried too hard, too early on, to say too much about events unfolding in the “Graveyard of Empires,” as if the literary razzle-dazzle interfered with a more accessible story more simply told. The wave of contemporary war novels that began arriving in 2011—Sand Queen, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Yellow Birds, The Watch, and Fobbit, for examples—revealed the inclination of American authors and readers for tales tightly focused on the experiences of young American fighting men and women. In other words, their characters, and by extension, their authors (Sand Queen author Helen Benedict and The Watch author Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya are partial exceptions here) were not very interested in the historical and cultural dimensions of the wars in which the protagonists fought. It would take a few more years before authors of contemporary war fiction began to attempt the longer, wider, deeper, more comprehensive views that Aslam pioneered in 2008. Similarly, war lit readers initially put off by The Wasted Vigil’s grandiloquent style, overpopulated and exotic cast, somewhat preposterous setting, highly programmatic plot, and bleak theme might now reconsider whether it all really is too extravagant or not.
My review of Aslam’s 2013 novel The Blind Man’s Garden.
Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil. Vintage-Random House, 2008/2009.