“This is among the few things that can be said about love with any confidence. It is small enough to be contained within the heart but, pulled thin, it would drape the entire world." It’s surprising gems like this that Nadeem Aslam offers readers in his new book, The Wasted Vigil, set in complicated, modern-day Afghanistan.
Aslam uses that love or prospect of love – deftly avoiding its clichéd trappings – to connect the lives of five vastly different characters.
We get to know, with all their depth and complexity, an ex-CIA agent grieving over the loss of his love, a Russian widow searching for clues to her brother’s death, a Muslim fundamentalist looking for something he doesn’t quite understand, and an Afghan girl who knows exactly what she wants but is thwarted by tradition. All seek a sort of solace under the roof of an English doctor, himself in search of a lost grandson.
If this sounds a bit complex, it is. But reading the book is like looking at pieces of a colorful mosaic. It may overwhelm at first glance, but as your eyes adjust, each piece is distinct and fascinating even as they fit together to tell a greater story.
That greater story is just as nuanced as the backdrop of Afghanistan’s war-torn past. It’s a picture of the realities of love and the search for love, fundamentalism and despair, unlikely similarities, strong ties, and shared internal conflicts.
The result is a book that is both lyrical and sharp. Aslam’s prose carries readers to rugged, rural Afghanistan all the while finding the whimsy (and the frustration) in cultural missteps. Consider Casa, an injured young Muslim zealot taking refuge under the English doctor’s roof. Casa wrestles within himself, wondering how to express gratitude to the doctor and his American friend, David, for their care:
“ ‘You are from the U.S.A?’ he asks David. ‘You flew here?’
‘You should be careful about flying.’
David shrugs. ‘Why?’
‘In case the Jews repeat the attacks of 11 September 2001.’ ”
Couple that with a scene later in the book where the Russian widow points out to the ex-CIA agent that he has some questionable notions of his own – even as it becomes clear that there are some poignant parallels between their stories. The fabric of these characters’ lives are interwoven with rich, carefully researched detail about Afghanistan and the intricacies of life in a country still grappling with the lasting influences of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
It’s a bold task to attempt to point out the similarities between a Muslim fundamentalist’s zeal and an American CIA agent’s righteous view of his job, yet, amid a sweeping story about love, Aslam does exactly this with considerable poise.
Jenna Fisher is a Monitor staff editor.