The Blind Man’s Garden

Starving children who eat vomit and a prisoner chewing through one of his own arteries in an attempt to escape torture were among the horrors on show in Nadeem Aslam’s ( and previous novel, The Wasted Vigil, set in Afghanistan amid the rise and fall of the Taliban. In his new book we find children forced to drink urine and a father who offers his kidney as a ransom to save his son from serial gang-rape in prison. It’s a sort of thwarted romance set in Pakistan in the months after 9/11, full of beheadings and bombings. At one point the hero subsists on marrow sucked from the bones of a dog’s flyblown corpse.

We follow Jeo, a medical student who travels to Afghanistan to help casualties of the coalition invasion with his foster brother Mikal. The two are sold to the Taliban the moment they cross the border. Soon both men are caught up in an American raid – just as Jeo discovers that his wife wrote the love letters Mikal is carrying in his satchel. Much of the texture of the novel concerns the perils of domestic life in a region where, as one character says, there are daily atrocities against women ‘in the name of honour-and-shame or Allah-and-Muhammad’.

If Aslam regrets the local impact of the United States – one of many harrowing scenes involves Mikal’s treatment at the hands of the CIA – he reserves greater ire for the home-grown menace from those who use religion as a tool of subordination. He often outlines a world-view, allowing the irony to stand without comment. Of a terrorist who lays siege to a school, we are told that ‘in his youth he had murdered two men during a dispute over a woman’s honour but had then discovered peace through Islam’.

Aslam taught himself to write English after arriving in Britain from Pakistan as a teenager. He has a gift for description. Sometimes it’s about what he notices – the ‘almost electronic noise’ of insects after dark – and sometimes it’s what he imagines -someone’s stammered reply comes out  ‘unshapely as though a bone was broken somewhere inside it’.

Aslam’s novel is essentially historical, set before the era of suicide attacks in Pakistan, to say nothing of murder-by-drone and the American redefinition of ‘civilian’ to exclude military-age males. Mikal’s remark, borrowed from Czeslaw Milosz, that his countrymen are ‘bodies assigned for wounds’ may hold yet more truth now than in the phase of history on which this brutal and troubling saga draws. A novel for the clear eyed and not for the faint hearted.

480 pages in Faber & Faber paperback edition

Nadeem Aslam

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