Pressing parallels to Greek drama, this Indian author’s ambitious but poorly structured third novel is about an Afghanistan War episode.
The setting is a U.S. combat outpost in Kandahar province, a Taliban stronghold. The guys are spooked. An ambush in the surrounding mountains has claimed two of them. That was followed by an insurgent attack during a blinding sandstorm, leaving four Americans dead and four wounded. The Afghan National Army soldiers abandoned their positions. The next day, a strange apparition approaches the base perimeter. It’s covered in a burqa and is pushing a cart. Man or woman? Suicide bomber or decoy? There’s no suspense for the reader, for the apparition, a young woman called Nizam, has already introduced herself in the opening section. Her family, returning from a wedding party, was killed by a U.S. bomb, leaving herself and her brother Yusuf, who led the revenge attack on the base. Yusuf was not a Talib but an anti-American freedom fighter. The wounded Nizam, her legs reduced to stumps, has come to bury him. The American captain, awaiting orders from battalion headquarters, refuses to release the body. So there’s a standoff. But when the soldiers hear Nizam playing her lute, they are spellbound: She has won their hearts and minds but not the captain’s, and her mission will end tragically. There’s material here for a novella but not more. The author inflates it in various ways, including stateside flashbacks. Long quotations from Sophocles’ Antigone, in which a burial is key, bookend his story. One lieutenant, Frobenius, is a classicist who has enlisted for old-fashioned reasons of honor, and his journal is laced with classical allusions. He sees the Pashtuns, with their concepts of honor and shame, as descendants of the Greeks. There is much desultory chatter among the grunts, ethnically diverse in the old war-story tradition, but little action, apart from that early firefight.
Nizam’s mission exposes the contradictions in the American presence in Afghanistan; the Greek connection is hardly necessary.