‘Things being as bad as they are, . . . this world won’t last for much longer,” an old baker observes partway through Nadeem Aslam’s hard-eyed new novel. The baker’s young nephew Imran has already seen too much of the world to be persuaded by such avuncular hopefulness, and very much holds with his brother Laal’s view: “I’ve got worse news for you, uncle. . . . The world will survive forever, with everything staying exactly as it is now.” One sentence later, this youthful fatalism proves more than a cheap tough pose: We learn that Imran’s “brother was gunned down outside the baker’s shop, the corpse dragged through the streets behind a military vehicle over the coming days, until nothing remained at the end of the rope. Imran managed to disappear and began another long journey, this time towards Pakistan.”
The poor guy! In Aslam’s rendering, present-day Pakistan just might be the world-historical capital of fatalism. After all, this is a place where men matter-of-factly raise their shirts to assure one another they’re not wearing suicide-bomber vests; where an intelligence officer roughs up a grieving widow in her home and then demands that he be shown out formally like a proper guest; where a four-year-old boy dies soon after his father converts to Christianity, “poisoned, everyone suspected, for being the child of an apostate, by someone in [the] family.” Elsewhere, the leader of a sectarian mob turns down a request “to burn down every Christian house before daybreak,” but not out of mercy: He’s the local landlord and he needs the rent money from an alleged blasphemer’s coreligionists. He successfully encourages the mob to focus its fury on that one man. Meanwhile, the survivors of family members killed as part of a CIA-related gunfight rage against America but accept U.S. citizenship as reparation and migrate there.
Why bother reading an imaginative work shot through, indeed endlessly strafed, with such bleakness and brutality? Won’t it merely confirm just about every newsfeed stereotype about prospects in an unstable, poor, violent, Muslim-majority country? In fact, as he did with his four acclaimed earlier novels, Aslam reveals — with much subtlety and many lyrical transports — small but undeniable portions of sacrifice, courage, love, and even beauty at work in an otherwise harrowing world.
The novel’s characters and events are haunted by the life and death of Massud, a 55-year-old architect. With his elegant wife, the fellow architect Nargis, he leads a quiet, cosmopolitan existence in a simple compound situated close by the Grand Trunk Road (“one of the planet’s great sinews”), in the middle of a lightly fictionalized version of Lahore that Aslam names Zamana. The architects’ home is full of models from around the world that inspire their work. They are keen to design monuments and buildings that celebrate and enact cross-cultural understandings and sympathies, and they have ensured that their illiterate Christian servants’ daughter Helen has had an excellent education, one that has made her a budding journalist. In sum, they are gentle, earnest, and self-consciously enlightened people who worry that division and barbarism too often win out against unity and goodness when it comes to religious complexities in Pakistan, and they sincerely want to do something about this.
In other words, they are not long for this world. While traveling to take part in the formal opening of a new city library the couple has designed, Massud is killed in a firefight that breaks out between an alleged CIA agent and local gunmen who could have any number of identities and allegiances. Afterward, seeking only to mourn her husband’s loss on her own terms, Nargis is pulled into a local-cum-international imbroglio whose details recall actual events from 2011 that featured onetime CIA contractor Raymond Davis and disputes over diplomatic immunity and U.S.-government reparations for foreign citizens. Aslam is less interested in reconstructing recent geopolitical controversies, though, than in revealing the human cost of trying to live through and beyond them — especially for Nargis, whose beloved dies before she can tell him the great secret of her life: She was born and raised a Christian but has lived as a Muslim since her early twenties, according to a rationale that Aslam discloses in a series of affecting flashbacks.
Nargis adamantly and bravely refuses to play a part in the cynical political theater that’s being engineered out of her husband’s death, and the intelligence officer assigned to change her mind intensifies his investigation into her background. In turn, her secret is imperiled, as are the lives of many others connected to her, including an aged Anglican bishop, Nargis’s longtime servant Lily, and Lily’s daughter Helen and her would-be beau Imran, who turns out to be a onetime recruit to Kashmiri militancy who has turned into a permanent runaway. His conversion from radicalism owes to his good sense, decency, and inherent concern for others.
Aslam provides each of these characters with fully fledged backstories that are often engrossing, but as the story reaches its second half, his moving around between his characters’ personal histories unnecessarily saps the great propulsive energy of the novel’s present-day plots. The latter heighten in tension as the characters’ parallel situations begin to intersect and intensify in peril. In effect, all are on the run, for reasons that often involve being accused of insulting Islam or threatening public order; all try to offer help, hope, and refuge to one another; and all are somehow connected to Nargis’s secret, which means, ultimately, that the state has a grim interest in their doings. Aslam’s plotting of pursuit, evasion, capture, and escape is intricate and engrossing, provided we accept his invitation to enjoy old-fashioned coincidences along the way (and we should).
His own earnest, even throbbing symbolism might prove harder to enjoy. For example, there is a 987-page book created by Massud’s father, which was inspired by the medieval book of hagiographies that also provides this novel with its title. The version of Massud’s father is a self-selected compendium of “the countless ideas and thoughts that had travelled over the ages from one part of the planet to another. It outlined and examined how disparate events in the history of the world had influenced each other, the hidden or forgotten contributions that one set of humans had made towards the happiness and knowledge of another.” Massud was carrying this book when he was killed. It was all but destroyed in the encircling chaos, and the novel’s other characters devote their rare free and safe time to repairing it. There’s a clear double moral on offer here — about loyalty to a loved one and the ideas that inspired him, and about affirming the power of intercultural understanding to overcome despair and ignorance.
Far less obvious and precious, and thereby far more moving and memorable, is the sudden and stunning decision that one of the main characters makes at novel’s end. This is a decision that extends two people’s lives for at least another day, provided they first outrun the latest sectarian mob chasing after them.
– Mr. Boyagoda, a novelist, is the principal and the vice president of the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, where he is also a professor of English and holds the Basilian Chair in Christianity, Arts, and Letters.