Book Review: The Wasted Vigil, by Nadeem Aslam

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By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Up Front

How often do we hear about writers who put decade long efforts to write fiction, working in secluded cottages without caring for seasons, weather, guilds or society? Rarely. Nadeem Aslam fits that genre. 

He has tirelessly done menial jobs to earn a living and to create an isolation just to write better books, to dive deep into imagination.  He writes by blackening out his windows, sleeps on the floor and makes books his pillows, and then continues to write even more on prize money. A devouring passion to write, clearly visible in his works. His each drafted word seems so deeply considered, as if he is plucking the best fruits out of a blossomed orchard - every time he tries to write. Nadeem is not only a writer, but he is an artist, a poet.

The Wasted Vigil  is a treasure narrative. As if it derives charms of war poetry by Vasko Popa. The language is beautiful but the content, coerced by violence. Some passages strike you with a reading experience never felt before. It is a tender ballad to Afghanistan, to its people, and a trenchant portrayal of barbarity. A glory of verbal prowess.  

 The book speaks of forlorn Afghanistan, where natives are victims of catastrophes - of warfare, religious zealotry, folklores, social chaos and cultural subjection, portraying shattered families, exiles for love and life and half ruined towns. It's a story primarily based in Usha, which depicts the whole ill fortune of Afghanistan - a graveyard of stagnated dreams, where misery chants captivity, where innocence is entrapped. A land of torn souls - a cursed miniature. It speaks of such a violence which simply demands guts to read. It speaks of amputations, famines forcing spit eating, maggot riddled flesh, gores and decaying corpses. Definitely not for the fainthearted.

The Wasted Vigil is not an easy read. It takes time to adapt to Nadeem Aslam's penning style. The narrative keeps on changing, which may confuse, but it engrosses the readers with erudite knowledge of world history, world politics and world culture - lines about Al Kindi, army of Alexander, Armenian gem merchants, Sultan Ghazni, Battle of Trench, Caesar, Neil Armstrong, Ferdowsi, CIA, Quran, Buddha, Napoleon, Islamic Spain, jungles of Vietnam, Leech Lake massacre, Greek tragedies, Hindu deities, poets, paintings, fruit pulp panaceas, perfume making, Soviet life and Saladin. It contains a rich lyrical grace which invokes both worlds, affixed by an imagination drenched in symbolism.

 The novel is an adventure of modern day Afghanistan. It's distinct characters speak in-depth. Marcus Cadwell, a pseudo Muslim convert, who works in a perfume factory, near Tora Bora Mountains. His house is near a haunted lake, in pomegranate, acacia and aloe vera trees - the home ceilings nailed with books, a house filled with art. His wife, Qatrina, a healer, an artist, murdered by Taliban. Lara, a Russian widow, who has journeyed into Afghanistan, and is living with Marcus, to search for her missing brother. Cadwell's daughter, Zameen, raped by a mocked Soviet soldier, who for the fear of her life, crosses into Peshawar, into its 'Streets of Storytellers,' and prostitutes to keep her baby out of malady. Crude warlords - Gul Rasool and Nabi Khan. David, a former CIA operative. Dunia, a young school teacher. Casa, an unrelenting Jehadi. James Palantine, an aware American soldier. All these characters are skilfully interlinked in the narrative by a reason of fate- they're lives trying to find a meaning in a devastated world.

 The Wasted Vigil not only churns affliction but it is also provocative. There are even passages which may tease conservative Islamists: there are disapprovals against religious republics, references of strong anti feminism from Caliph Umar and Caliph Ali. Forbidding distractions of a believer by a woman.  Intolerances in the Islamic history. A rape by a nomad after humbling in prayer. Controversial citations of Islamic traditions and Quran- is Nadeem trying to mock the essence of religion? Is he mystifying scriptures, or is he trying to question the devotion of people towards true faith? All these sensitive matters are carefully accounted which evoke a debate and force the readers towards earnest studies into religion.

The Wasted Vigil is a dainty beauty woven out of a tragedy. Each word should be relished, celebrated. You just wish to dwell in the lines and feel reluctant to flip the next page. That's the beauty of The Wasted Vigil. It won't be an exaggeration to compare or even praise it to be as par as The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns. Infact, the impression and intensity, which Nadeem Aslam leaves, is victor. Strongly recommended to readers who love superior artwork in writing. It's evocative and is filled with a strong emotional impact.

War literature at its riveting best.


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