Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil

The Wasted VigilThe 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.

Life During Wartime, On the Other Side: Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden

Blind Man's GardenEx-Marine Elliott Ackerman’s novel Green on Blue is out this week and I’m eager to read it. Green on Blue’s point-of-view—it’s told through the eyes of an Afghan young man who serves in a native militia attached to US forces in an eastern Afghanistan province—and Ackerman’s sympathy for the Afghans with whom he served jibes with my own experience. As an advisor in eastern Afghanistan, I dealt not just with official Afghan National Security Forces such as the Army, the National Police, and Border Police, but with various arbaki: quasi-official tribal fighting forces raised from local ranks of military-aged-males. Arbakis ranged from functionary gate-and-tower guards on US FOBs to kick-ass killers affiliated with Other Government Agencies such as the CIA. Generally they were considered more reliable and competent than ANSF units, within the scope of their missions. Their hatred of the Taliban and war-mongering bandits (or, “dooshmen”) seemingly sincere and battle-tested, the fact remained that an arbaki’s real loyalty was not to Americans but to the regional overseers–let us say “warlords”–who organized them and sold their services to US occupiers.

Green on Blue awaits, but by chance this winter I came across British-Pakistani author Nadeem Aslam’s novel The Blind Man’s Garden, which treats similar subjects. Published in 2013 to acclaim in England but little notice in the United States, The Blind Man’s Garden is actually Aslam’s second novel portraying conflict in contemporary Afghanistan through the eyes of natives; an earlier work, The Wasted Vigil, appeared in 2008. The protagonists of The Blind Man’s Garden are Mikal and Jeo, Pakistani brothers-by-adoption who cross into Afghanistan to render aid to civilians injured by American invaders after 9/11. Mikal and Jeo are not Taliban, but thoughtful young men eager to defend the integrity of a neighboring country bound by culture and religion. Their first night in Afghanistan, however, is a disaster: they are seized by mercenary arbaki fighters and then caught in conflict between competing arbaki, one of which is aligned with US Special Forces. Jeo is killed and Mikal is captured, has his trigger fingers amputated to prevent further resistance, and then ransomed to Americans by a profiteering warlord.

Scenes illustrating Mikal’s treatment by interrogators at Bagram Air Force Base are unstinting in their portrait of American brutality. If you don’t think Americans physically tortured suspected opponents in the early days of the war on terror, well, Aslam does. American propensity for sadistic violence, to say nothing of their inclination to wage their own version of jihadist war on Islamic nations, is a given in the minds of Aslam’s Pakistani characters. Aslam-the-author’s take is more complicated. His portrait of the Koran-saturated belief systems and ways of life of contemporary Pakistanis is a badly-needed detailed representation of a world Americans basically spent a decade fighting without knowing much about. For those interested, The Blind Man’s Garden offers a nuanced portrait of the conflicting attitudes toward the West held by those who waged war against us and those whom the wars affected. Many scenes and passages in The Blind Man’s Garden portray a rich, venerable culture, wise and deeply connected to nature, education, faith, family, and history. The Pakistani folkways and circuitries of thought that Aslam holds up for admiration make American culture typified by Burger King and TMZ appear as superficial as it is often accused of being.

But Aslam also suggests that Pakistan is trapped, to the point of poison and doom, by its deep entanglement with a religion that drives devout believers not just to jihad against the West but to conflict with each other. A passage seen from the perspective of Kyra, a Pakistani military officer who resigns his commission rather than be a part of an organization tainted by its support of the West, illustrates. Here Kyra is gazing at a traditional non-militant religious academy he intends to turn into a madrassa he will use to transform young men into jihadists:

Nine-Eleven. Everything about it is a lie, he is beginning to believe. A conspiracy. Flying large aircraft at low altitudes in an urban sky is not a simple thing. There had to be something manipulating air traffic control. There had to be somebody who switched off the warning system for the Pentagon. From what he has read and heard it seems that the air force did not scramble for more than an hour. Kyra is a military man so he knows about such basic things. It was all staged, to invent an excuse to begin invading Muslim lands one by one.

He looks toward the arch above Ardent Spirit’s front gate. It was removed from the entrance of the original building and brought here when the school changed premises. When Rohan [the school’s founder and Mikal and Jeo’s father] and his wife founded it, the arch had read “Education is the basis of law and order.” Soon the word “Islamic” was added before “Education” by Rohan himself, apparently against his wife’s wishes. Over the years it has been amended further, going from “Islamic education is the basis of law and order” to “Islam is the basis of law” and then to “Islam is the purpose of life,” while these days it says “Islam is the purpose of life and death.”

Under Ahmed the Moth [another school supervisor], Ardent Spirit had developed links with Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. Pupils were selected to be trained in combat at jihadi camps run by the ISI, and ultimately sent to carry out covert operations in Kashmir…. Kyra could have maintained the connection but he feels nothing but revulsion at the army and the ISI for abandoning Afghanistan. The Arden Spirit pupils now belong to him alone and through them he’ll set his plans in motion, molding them to be warrior saints, brilliant in deceit against the West and its sympathizers here at home.

The business about the changing sign hints at humor, and in another passage a character cracks that the easiest way to break up an anti-US protest in Pakistan is to announce that US visas are being handed out around the corner. But levity is in serious short supply elsewhere in The Blind Man’s Garden; Aslam calls contemporary Pakistan a “heartbroken and sorrowful land.” An austere dignity is the most any Pakistani can hope for in the face of Islamic extremism inspired by a hatred, fear, and envy of the West that tears apart families, divides generations, and inflicts grievous harm on good people. But even moderate Islamic belief in the novel’s view makes many adherents—particularly women and anyone who has gotten a sniff of the West’s cultural diversity and opportunities—miserable. Mikal’s chief Bagram torturer is hardly the most heinous character in The Blind Man’s Garden, and neither is a Special Forces captain who, late in the novel, crosses into Pakistan on a one-man solo mission to find and kill Mikal after his release from American custody. The Americans in The Blind Man’s Garden aren’t drawn in enough detail to be more than minor characters, but that’s OK. The novel’s excellence lies in its depiction of a Pakistani society that appears, from the outside-looking-in, to despise itself and to be making its members terribly unhappy. The title refers to a garden dear to Rohan, the original peace-loving patriarch of the Ardent Spirit school. Rohan is blinded midway through the novel, and his disability accelerates his marginalization from contemporary mainstream Pakistani life and thought. Rohan once dreamed of recouping the glorious years of Islamic ascendency, when Islam, dominant from India to Spain, made other belief systems look weak and tawdry in comparison to the majesty of its purpose and achievement. The garden now grows neglected and Rohan is helpless to prevent its decline or enjoy what beauty it still possesses.

The novel goes slightly awry in its last third when Mikal joins with the Special Forces officer in a desperate effort to save the officer’s life, played out in barren desert and mountain landscapes. The saga is a little too contrived and dependent on coincidence, and reads like something out of Cormac McCarthy–not a bad thing sometimes but here less interesting than The Blind Man’s Garden‘s deeply-textured portraits of Pakistan social life. The saga’s not really even needed, frankly,  because by the point it begins in the novel Aslam’s work–humanizing America’s enemies–has already long been done and done well.

US, Afghan, and Pakistan forces on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Khost Province, 2009
US, Afghan, and Pakistan forces on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Khost Province, 2009

A Los Angeles Review of Books review of The Blind Man’s Garden here.

Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden. Knopf, 2013.

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