The war in Afghanistan, as seen from the other side—or, better, another side.
“[H]ave you ever heard a story in which the evil person triumphs at the end?” So, three paragraphs into Pakistani-born, British author Aslam’s (The Wasted Vigil, 2008, etc.) latest, a father, Rohan, asks his son, Jeo. Always careful, Jeo thinks for a moment before replying that the trouble is that on the way to defeat, evil people “harm the good people.” Good and evil are porous categories: Jeo is a medical student, while his brother Mikal works at a gun shop, but both rise to the cause when American troops invade neighboring Afghanistan, joining the jihad against them. Jeo volunteers at a hospital in Peshawar, while Mikal crosses the border to fight alongside the Taliban; for his trouble, he is captured by American soldiers and subjected to interrogation that promises to become torture (“Mikal refuses to speak and they take him to a bare windowless room, attach a chain to his wrists, and...fasten the chain to a ring on the ceiling”). Suffice it to say that the tables turn. The saga of war and sacrifice stretches across the centuries—midway through the story, Rohan, benevolent but given to despair, finds himself wondering whether he has not been cursed in some way because his great-grandfather had sided with the British during the mutiny of 1857. Aslam finds poetry in scenes both ordinary and dreamlike (“the moonlight pale as watered ink”; “Rohan dreams of an American soldier and a jihadi warrior digging the same grave”). At times, the images he conjures seem improbable, as with an American commando who carries a snow leopard cub inside his shirt, but the writing is so assured and the story so urgent that it’s easy to suspend disbelief.
Aslam sympathizes not with causes, but with people, and this is a memorable portrait of a people torn apart by war.