The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam
In both content and form, The Wasted Vigil is a book of extremes. For readers who have experienced Nadeem Aslam before (and the apt word really is ‘experience’), you’ll recognize (and be awed by) his mesmerizing prose … allow me a moment to share this early quote about books and reading (of course): “Each beloved book has more than one copy – some small with the text crowded into perhaps too few pages, others where the print and the page are both generously proportioned. … Sometimes there is a need to take pleasure in a favourite book for its story line alone, and the smaller editions facilitate this because the eye moves fast along a closely printed page. At other times one wishes to savour language – the rhythm of sentences, the precision with which a given word has been studded into a phrase – and on such occasions the larger size helps to slow one down, pause at each comma. Dawdling within a landscape.”
Here in his landscape of extremes, Aslam wields his language like a weapon, his mellifluous prose in cutting contrast to the horrific acts witnessed in the name of god, patriotism, honor, truth, and even love. Each of Aslam’s main characters experiences that all-encompassing sort of love, even as that love is destroyed – or, at the very least, fatally shattered – by the most inhumane atrocities.
Vigil weaves in and out of the neverending turbulent decades of Afghanistan’s modern history, its citizens brutalized by the British, Soviets, Taliban, and the Americans. Outside Jalalabad, by a lake believed to be haunted by angry djinn, in a remote house filled with the spirit of missing loved ones, four lost souls gather – their lives criss-crossed and overlapping with tragedy. The home belongs to Marcus, a British ex-pat doctor now 70, who lost his Afghan wife and his hand to the Taliban. He welcomes a Russian woman Lara, recently widowed, who searches for answers to her soldier brother’s disappearance during the Soviet invasion.
While Marcus is out on yet another possible search for a grandson he has never met, he unexpectedly runs into David, a former CIA operative whose life once evolved around Marcus’ only daughter Zameen, now dead. The trio grows into a temporary foursome when an injured young fundamentalist Muslim, Casa, is saved by the very westerners he has been taught to abhor, and trained to destroy.
Basil Sands’ excellent narration breathes life into four disparate characters – and others, as well – as they attempt to find, if not the truth, then a sense of peace with what has happened to family, friends, an entire country. But the house and its occupants are caught between two vicious warlords – one sanctioned by the U.S. government – and they cannot prevent imminent destruction from reaching their doors …
In various interviews, Aslam, who is Pakistani-born, UK-domiciled and educated since his teen years, has spoken about traveling extensively through Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to write Vigil, as well as interviewing some 200 Afghan refugees living in Britain. His international, peripatetic background places Aslam simultaneously on both ‘sides’ of incomprehensible conflict; surely, that unique dissonance imbues Vigil with its unfathomable opposites – its terror and beauty, its deception and truth, its abhorrent hatred and unconditional love.