March 29, 2011

Ted Dunphy on The Wasted Vigil

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The Wasted Vigil

by Nadeem Aslam

Bamiyan Buddha

Nadeem Aslam has created a remarkable insight into the conflicts in Afghanistan. Exquisitely written, with an eye for detail and a wonderful observation of colours and textures The Wasted Vigil takes the reader on a journey that is complex, challenging and provocative. Aslam’s love for the Afghan countryside and its wide array of plants and flowers is constantly on display. The countryside and the house with the attached perfume factory are centrepieces in the story, with the excavated, toppled Buddha in the perfume factory standing for the enduring timelessness of the place.

Yet the individuals who inhabit the house and the country flit across the pages of the book like minor Shakespearean characters, drawn in to utter a few lines, before disappearing, to leave the main thread of the story to unroll further. They are on private quests to find healing, wholeness or love. Most add little of benefit to the people or the country, offering only hardship while perpetuating servitude and superstition. Aslam introduces them swiftly and just as quickly leaves them, while he develops another strand in the mosaic he builds against the framework of the country’s beauty.

By combining this beauty with the clashing ideologies and intertwining fates of his characters – showing them in their worst light – the book lays bare the fundamental wrongness of the conflict. The intruders trample across the country, subjugating its people and destroying its nature and history, and Aslam shows his contempt for them all and their thoughtless ways. The self-serving local warlords are painted in no less a critical light than the Taliban, with their fixed ideological beliefs and their imperviousness to reality or to the real needs of the people. Aslam delivers scathing attacks on the brutality of the Russian army, but he is no less vitriolic when he turns his attention to the depredations perpetrated by the Coalition Forces, with their mercy mission to establish peace on terms beneficial to themselves. The contribution of the hypocritical clerics to maintaining a system of servitude among the people is not overlooked and receives the acerbic judgment it deserves.

This is a book where passages describing the beauty of the landscape and the colours and aromas of the fauna are couched alongside precise, detailed descriptions of the cruelty used in torture, revenge and inter-tribal conflicts. The gruesome and inhuman actions of the perpetrators are presented in their full horror. The descriptions, sparsely and artfully written in a matter of fact way, are sufficiently robust without need of further embellishments. Belligerents are shown to be morally destitute even when claiming that all is done in the cause of right. The reader is left gasping at the degree of barbarity displayed by all those who claim to be on the side of truth, godliness and justice.

If a book ever preached the incomprehensible horrors of war this is it. While “the heroes of East and West are slaughtering each other in the dust of Afghanistan,” others pay the price and the land is scarred but never destroyed. The main character, Marcus Caldwell, who is a link across the dividing line between the West and the Muslim world, provides the one strand of hope. Submerged often in the lake of his own suffering, his guardianship of the house, the perfume factory and the toppled Buddha gives him a contact point with the timelessness of the land and the country that is the only hope for the future. His perfume factory may one day work again distilling delight from the colourful flowers from his garden.

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