Magazine | May 29, 2017, Issue

On the Run

The Golden Legend, by Nadeem Aslam (Knopf, 336 pp., $26.95)

‘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.

Randy Boyagoda — Mr. Boyagoda, a novelist, is a professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he is also the principal of St. Michael’s College. His latest novel, Original Prin, will be published in Canada in 2018.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners




Girl with Bull I read Jay Nordlinger’s piece about Fearless Girl (“Girl, Misplaced,” May 1) and her placement opposite Charging Bull and agree that it’s an injustice that the new sculpture ...
The Week

The Week

‐ We were for firing Comey before the Democrats were against it. ‐ President Trump fired FBI director James Comey, who had made himself eminently fireable. Last July, Comey took it ...


MOONLIGHT IN NASHUA The moonlight rouses me at half past three, piercing through thick curtains I had drawn, but for this gap. My heavy-lidded eyes return the glare. What’s this bald rock to me but ...

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Ten Questions for the ‘Squad’

Democratic infighting reached a fever pitch last week with bickering and personal attacks between members of the “Squad” and other House Democrats. During that period, Squad members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley mostly avoided doing interviews. However, that all ... Read More

The Rise of the Chinese-American Right

On June 13, during a nasty storm, a group of Chinese New Yorkers gathered in front of the gates of Gracie Mansion, the New York mayor’s residence on the Upper East Side, to protest. Inside, Mayor Bill de Blasio was meeting with two dozen or so representatives of the Asian-American community to discuss his ... Read More

Who Is Boris Johnson?

By next week at this time, Boris Johnson will be prime minister of the United Kingdom. Not since Margaret Thatcher has such an outsized personality resided in Number 10 Downing Street. Not since Winston Churchill has such a wit presided over Her Majesty’s Government. Wit is actually the chief reason for ... Read More

How Beto Made Himself into White-Privilege Guy

Robert Francis O’Rourke is white. If it’s any consolation, he’s very sorry about that. “Beto” has been running from his Irish ancestry for some time now. Long before the Left fell headlong into the logical termini of its triune fascination with race, power, and privilege, O’Rourke sensed that there ... Read More