TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 December 2013
I found Nadeem Aslam's 2008 novel astonishing. Not just because of the information that it provides about everyday life and death in Afghanistan, a subject that has not been far from the headlines over the last decade or so.
The author recounts a complex story revolving around three people, Marcus, Lara and David, who have each suffered through their connection to Afghanistan. Marcus Caldwell, an elderly English doctor now living alone in Tora Bora, has lost his Afghan wife (another doctor) and daughter, Qatrina and Zameen, to violence. Lara. a Russian, arrives at his house in searching for her brother, Benedikt, who deserted from the Soviet army in the 1980s. David is a jewel dealer who knows the country, has contacts and, having lost his brother in Vietnam, is unremittingly anti-Communist.
The author slowly reveals the background of these people, everyday life in the country in Usha, near Jalalabad, its countryside, the abandoned underground perfume factory with a huge buried Buddha's head, a lake, minefields, mortared roofs and walls damaged by shells and bullets. Other characters are drawn in, Dunia, a local teacher being forced from her job by the Taleban and Casa, an orphaned jihadi, whose training in Kashmir removed any independent thought but left a quietness that merely heightens his blinkered depravity and twisted ideology.
Marcus' Islamic calligraphy decorated (or desecrated as the Taleban see it) with animals and he is duly punished by having his left hand amputated. This must be done by a doctor to avoid the victim bleeding to death and Qatrina is ordered to officiate. The couple were married by a woman as this was not forbidden by the Koran; many years later the Taleban punish her for adultery. These are just two of many distressing scenes that sweep across killings, rapes, amputations and torture, which are inflicted on Russian, Afghan, Pakistani combatants and non-combatants, `butterfly' mines that look like toys lure and maim, not kill, children.
Lara, recently widowed, let her feet point toward Mecca while sleeping in a crowd of travelers was battered with a tyre iron. She finds out that her long-lost brother has raped Zameen before being killed in a game of buzkashi, particularly unpleasant. Zameen survived, gave birth to a child and, later, fell in love with David. When he abandons her, she was forced to prostitute herself to fund her son's medical treatment.
The author's repetitions emphasise the inevitability of violence in a country that has known very few years of peace "Men lost in long-forgotten ambushes. Men lost in falling B52 bombers. Men last seen alive in the hands of their captors'. "A spike driven through the pages of history, a spike through the pages of love, a spike through the sacred". These spikes hold the pair's books to the ceiling having been hammered in by Qatrina, maddened by her husband's amputation.
There are occasions when the writing becomes too florid, as if the author has become carried away with his story. But there is also great tenderness, as when Dunia and Casa, attracted to one another, tentatively seek to put their pasts behind them. If only Casa, `feeling tired of walking the endless road of his life, of absorbing the body blows as and when they were dealt and staggering on' had not been orphaned with the jihadis and been indoctrinated, he might have had a chance in life.
We see warlords, intent on fighting one another once external threats are removed, and the Taleban receiving arms from the West to use against the Russians. Whilst US operators use a blowtorch to remove an Afghan's eye, in the Gulf distinguished clergymen were ruling that `under Islamic law a man can divorce his wife through SMS text messaging'.
One point: the author is surely incorrect to write: "the religion of Islam at its core does not believe in the study of science". Jim Al-Khalili's "Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science", 2010, shows the opposite. It is religious fundamentalism, Islamism not Islam, that clouds objective and rational thinking, and produces a mindset unfavourable towards scientific inquiry and its central tenet, questioning received wisdom.
This awful but insightful book will cause its readers to understand better the latest `news from our correspondent in Afghanistan'.