Afghanistan’s ancient culture is juxtaposed with its brutal recent political past in a fine novel by the Pakistani-born writer (Maps for Lost Lovers, 2005, etc.).
Complexity, beauty, violence and tragedy mark the pages of Aslam’s affecting story, which spirals out from the intricately muralled home of Marcus, an elderly English doctor living in Afghanistan. Marcus converted to Islam to marry his doctor wife Qatrina, but the Taliban stoned her to death after forcing her to cut off Marcus’s left hand and driving her mad. Their only child Zameen disappeared and Marcus’s quest ever since has been to find Zameen and her illegitimate son Bihzad. On a similar quest is Marcus’s Russian houseguest Lara, whose brother Benedikt was a soldier in the Soviet army in Afghanistan and who also disappeared. Zameen and Benedikt’s fates are in fact connected: Benedikt was Bihzad’s father. Additional layers of information surface via the involvement of David, a CIA agent who fell in love with Zameen and whose story exposes the role of local warlords, the American mindset and the United States’s complicity in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The book’s ever-reinterpreted narrative is full of blood and sorrow. Bihzad becomes a terrorist and is killed by a bomb he delivers. His trainer, madrassa-indoctrinated Casa, is later injured and tended by David and Marcus, which compromises and challenges Casa’s attitudes. Aslam’s efforts to unravel the knot of conflict are dreamy and eloquent, lit by poetic images—a buried Buddha, a compass made of blood—while he strives to maintain a scrupulously distanced perspective. Moments of over-earnestness and the story’s endless redefining of events do not negate its insight or somber impact. As the novel ends, cruelty, belief and warfare continue unceasingly.
An intense, empathetic, magisterial interpretation of clashing beliefs and entwined fates, in a harsh and ruined, yet lovely place.