'The Golden Legend' tells a magnificent story of terror and dignity

Pakistani-born author Nadeem Aslam’s mesmerizing fifth novel may be his best.

The Golden Legend By Nadeem Aslam Knopf 336 pp.

I must confess: I missed my deadline. I simply didn’t want to finish this book. Letting go of Nargis, Lily, Helen, and Imran felt like a visceral cleaving. While Nadeem Aslam’s previous novels, including “Maps for Lost Lovers” and “The Blind Man’s Garden,” were also mesmerizing, this, his fifth and latest, is other-worldly astonishing. Superlatives feel downright insufficient. I know it’s only still May, but I’m already willing to predict that The Golden Legend could be the best book you read this year.

Aslam takes readers to a small portion of Grand Trunk Road, Asia’s ancient thruway that links Bangladesh to Afghanistan, to the fictional town of Zamana in contemporary Pakistan. One spring morning, an American stops his car on the historical thoroughfare and starts shooting. Among the dead is Massud, a local Muslim and lauded architect.

Without even time to mourn, Massud’s wife Nargis – and architect partner – is confronted with a political demand that strains her morality: to avoid an international incident, Nargis must publicly forgive the murderer, an alleged American diplomat, so he can return home to the United States. More powerful than a government official’s menacing order is Nargis’s wrenching regret about the one secret she never told Massud.

Living in the mixed neighborhood of Badami Bagh across from Zamana’s 18th-century mosque, Massud and Nargis were no strangers to  violence. Massud lost his brother, Nargis her sister; both knew too many others who had been victimized and destroyed. In a majority Muslim country, Christian enclaves are ostensibly tolerated, even as individuals are relentlessly discriminated against, assaulted, and even killed because of their spiritual beliefs.

But Massud and Nargis are unlike their dogmatic neighbors. They consider their Christian housekeepers, Lily and Grace, family; their daughter Helen is just as much Massud and Nargis’s child whom they have nurtured, educated, and loved as their own over the past couple of decades.

With Massud gone, and Helen’s mother lost to murder three years prior, Nargis finds that devoted, thoughtful, intelligent Helen is her greatest comfort.

While the two women make attempts at some semblance of normalcy, Helen’s father Lily’s growing love for a Muslim widow – the daughter of the local cleric – is about to destroy the fragile peace in Badami Bagh. When their forbidden liaison is exposed, accusations of blasphemy – punishable by death – send Lily on the run. Helen and Nargis become targets by association and are forced to flee. In a moment of unexpected serendipity, Imran, a stranger linked to Massud, becomes the women’s self-appointed protector.

Pakistani-born, British-educated Aslam’s own experience of living between two cultures has certainly informed his stupendous novels. Religious discord, terrorism, corruption, war, continue to provoke – and haunt – his latest fiction.

Yet indelibly intertwined with the atrocious violence and despicable tyranny are moments of wrenching beauty: a four-partitioned mosque deemed the most beautiful modern building in Pakistan stands abandoned due to Muslim-against-Muslim murder; the most beautiful flowers sprout from the shallow graves of disappeared victims, a cherished photo of an uncle and his two young nieces incites death decades later.

In a further stroke of literary brilliance, Aslam creates a book within his book, a 987-page masterpiece that haunts Aslam’s “Legend” from beginning to end, aptly entitled “That They Might Know Each Other.” Written by Massud’s father and published the year of Massud’s birth, the book connects disparate ideas, thoughts, events throughout world history to show the “umbilical connections” between seemingly unrelated people and places: Dante Alighieri, for example, probably found inspiration in Muhammad’s journey to Paradise and Hell when he wrote “The Divine Comedy”; Boccaccio used elements of the Ramayana in his “Decameron”; Andalusian mystic Ibn Tufail’s romance fed into Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.”

Massud had just recovered his beloved missing copy minutes before he was killed.  After its improbable return, the gorgeous volume is slashed to pieces as a vicious warning to Nargis, but then will be lovingly and laboriously sewn back together page-by-page with golden thread. Attentive hands will re-create this “golden legend,” making it something even greater than it was with the additional stories contained in its careful stitches.

That mending becomes the novel’s gentle leitmotif, as Aslam both severs and reunites connections, destroys and reclaims characters, to offer readers an unparalleled experience that both rightfully condemns and poignantly honors the worst and best of our shared humanity.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

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