I’ve greatly admired Nadeem Aslam’s writing since I read his 2004 novel “Maps for Lost Lovers” which focused on an immigrant Pakistani community in the north of England. There is something so striking about his use of imagery which conveys the feelings of his characters and expresses the ideas which they are wrestling with. His novels are intricate, layered with diverse references and wrestle with pressing political dilemmas, but at the heart of his writing are compelling dramatic stories of individuals simply trying to live and love each other in challenging circumstances. It feels like his new novel “The Golden Legend” is his most violent and heartrending yet. It’s set in Pakistan and concerns several individuals caught in the middle of a fraught religious struggle. An architect named Nargis hides a dangerous secret which she must reckon with when her Christian friends Helen and her father Lily find themselves embroiled in a serious conflict with the strict Muslims of the community. Together with a young ex-militant man named Imran from Kashmir, they escape to a forgotten place of refuge – inevitably they are unable to remain hidden from the larger world forever.
This novel fully engages with the highly-charged social and political landscape of Pakistan. It depicts an extraordinary amount of violence including civilian deaths under covert American missions, the burning of Christian homes, the persecution of Muslims who are deemed not Muslim enough, journalists slaughtered by jihadi, suicide bombers and a man sentenced to death for blasphemy just because he ‘liked’ a disrespectful comment made about Muhammad on Facebook. But Aslam shows the intricate web of motivations which feed into these horrific acts. People can self-righteously justify any number of atrocities when faith is mixed with hidden motives such as revenge, the quest for power or financial/political kickbacks.
Aslam also reflects: “It felt strange to think this about a place that could be so violent, but most of the time there was a deep desire to avoid confrontation in Pakistan. Ordinary people wished to be left alone, and wished to leave others alone, finding pockets of love and comfort within the strict laws that governed them. They had been owned and abused so often that at the most basic level ownership and abuse meant nothing at all. It did also mean, however, that the loud, belligerent individuals and groups could remain unchallenged.” The citizens who live within a society so embroiled in conflict will inevitably feel swayed to do whatever will allow them to live most peaceably. They are also the products of a particular history and that inheritance informs everything about their being.
Acts of violence aren’t only inflicted against people in the novel, but towards that history itself. When Nargis is cornered and intimidated in her home a precious book is slashed. Instead of disposing of this she uses golden thread to try to stitch it back together. This is a self-consciously meditative act imitating Kintsugi: the art of mending pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold. The line where the pottery is broken is emphasized in the mending because “Some things were more beautiful and valuable for having been broken.” The same is true for the individuals who survive these conflicts, who lose people they love most in life and still demonstrate acts of touching humanity. It’s observed of people displaced in the midst of battle that “old women held daises next to the faces of children suffering in the cold air, the yellow centres giving off a light that was believed to control difficult breathing.” This is what Aslam captures so beautifully in his writing: small acts of caring which raise people out of their perilous circumstances.
Something I connected with most strongly in this novel was the way Aslam meaningfully portrays internal conflicts of identity. Several of his characters pretend to be something they are not because of an overwhelming amount of persecution. Some Christians find it easier to pass as Muslims in this community and sometimes it’s necessary to hide one’s religious background to avoid oppression/arrest/execution. But the grave danger of such concealment is that it might be uncovered. An unknown person broadcasts people’s secrets to the entire city over a loudspeaker. In another shocking scene, men are examined by officers to see if they are circumcised to prove whether or not they are trustworthy Muslims. Aslam shows how dangerously corrupt systems of government and societies can become when people are persecuted simply for belonging to a particular group rather than because of their actions.
Another grave consequence of denying an essential part of your identity is the way in which it produces feelings of extreme isolation. This is true whether it’s concealing something important in how you publicly present yourself to society or with people you love in private. Aslam observes how “Loneliness was such a terrible thing, it was said, it made even God cry out to man.” So some of the most tender and beautiful lines of this novel are when the writer depicts scenes of enduring love borne out of honesty: “There was order, safety and happiness, and there were veins of leaves dried sentimentally in books; and there was one asking the other to choose something from a restaurant menu for both.” As fractious as the society in this novel appears, Aslam artfully portrays remarkable touches of humanity.