Nadeem Aslam’s Afghanistan in The Wasted Vigil is a landscape as real in its tragedy as it is unreal in its beauty.
Following a Russian woman, Lara, in her search for her brother (a Soviet soldier) and Marcus Caldwell’s search for his grandson Bihzad, Aslam explores decades of war that shaped the post 9/11 world, an Afghanistan ravaged by Americans.
A Pakistani-British, he was convinced he would be denied a visa to Afghanistan and says he was ready to write the novel without visiting the country. Having spoken to about 200 people from the country, his Afghanistan had begun to take shape.
However, once he did get the visa, he decided to write the first draft of the novel before leaving for Afghanistan. “I wanted to learn about myself as a human being. I decided to write a first draft of my own thinking as a person and to see how accurate my preconceived notions about people were”.
Once in Afghanistan he was pleased to find that he had been fairly accurate. “I have a feeling that if one thinks intelligently enough about a place it might resemble the original,” he says.
More important to his narrative is the lingering perfume of the country’s past, the smell of oranges in bloom and the elusive memory of the Buddha. “The sense of smell is linked closest to human memory, and I wanted Caldwell’s perfume factory to be a repository of Afghani history. Hence the Buddha buried on its grounds.”
Aslam’s association with Afghanistan began in Jalandhar, the home of his granduncle, who was the physician to the King of Afghanistan. His home in Jalandhar was even known as the Kabul House.
The book begins with Lara’s discovery that Qatrina, Caldwell’s wife, had nailed all the books in the house to the ceiling trying to save them from the Taliban.
For Aslam, the paranoia towards books and learning outside of the Quran is unacceptable. “I don’t want to live in a world where there’s only one book in the world.”
Throughout the novel Aslam makes critical, if controversial, observations of a world where religion has lost all meaning in the struggle for prominence. “I am not a believer, but I will certainly not impose my views on anyone. The job of a writer is to listen and gently ask,” he says.
For Aslam, the fanatic believer is as real as the liberal thinker — his mother’s family was devout while his father was a communist, and had to leave Pakistan under the Zia regime for that very reason.
Having studied in an Urdu-medium school, Aslam reached England as a teacher unable to speak English. Like Joseph Conrad, Aslam learnt English as a foreign language, with careful formality and a need to master imagery in the written word.
This position as the outsider, sensitively documented in his second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers, lends The Wasted Vigil an objectivity that allows room for voices from England, Russia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and America.
But the intense imagery of Maps, a book that took him eleven-and-a-half years to write gives way to a faster narrative this time around. “I was learning my craft during Maps… Now I feel that four years is a reasonable time for writing a novel. Now I know a 100-page biography on each character mentioned in the book is not necessary — 25 pages will do — or you can hold it in your head,” he explains. “Most importantly, I think it was my own realisation that this was not the only novel I would write and that I did not have to put everything into it.”
His next novel, Blind Man’s Garden, is set in present-day Pakistan and Aslam will write it sitting in his cottage in North England.