In his new novel, The Wasted Vigil, Nadeem Aslam, the writer of two previous novels, one of which, Maps for Lost Lovers, won the prestigious Kiriyama Prize, delves into the conflict-ridden reality of modern Afghanistan.
From the Soviet invasion of 1979 to the U.S. war effort in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Afghanistan has been a battleground of opposing ideologies for several decades now.
The story takes place in the house of Marcus Caldwell, a British doctor who has made Usha, a town near Jalalabad, his home since marrying an Afghan doctor. Both Qatrina, his wife, and Zameen, their daughter, have been lost to the tyranny of the Taliban, yet Marcus continues to live there like "a prophet in wreckage."
Over the course of the story, several people will visit his house: a Russian from St. Petersburg searching for her soldier brother, a young Islamic fundamentalist taking cover for a few days, a former CIA man much disillusioned with his role as spy, and others. Marcus is the benevolent patriarch who shelters them all under the intent gaze of a Buddha head that was discovered during the building of the house and the perfume factory adjacent to it.
Aslam's writing gradually unravels the histories of the cast of characters and takes us into a civilization that, even though we learn more and more about it with every passing day, is still inscrutable to the Western eye. The presence of a Buddha in Marcus' house, given the actual destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, is employed aptly by Aslam as a connecting thread.
A pragmatist, Aslam takes no sides in the fight between Islam and the West, even as he approaches a rigid stance against terrorism. The softly gleaming beauty of his prose is immediately reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje, and the moral clarity of his concerns heralds a brave new voice in the mold of Salman Rushdie.
Vikram Johri is a writer in New Delhi, India.