This is an extraordinary book. It is extraordinary in so many ways that it is difficult to know where to begin. So I thought that I would start with the obvious and work forwards from there. Nadeem Aslam is a master of the craft of writing. His choice of words is exquisite. His construction of sentences approaches the immaculate, which is as good as it could ever possibly get. Like the Ancient Mariner, he knows how to seize the attention of his readers and to make us listen until he has finished his story. And what a story this is. It is spellbinding. It is riveting. Whether you emerge sadder or wiser depends on your ability to listen and to understand. You will not emerge from this tale unmoved.
This is an uncomfortable tale. I imagine that there are many people who will be extremely unhappy with it as it brings things hiding in the shadows into the light. It begins with Massud and Nargis setting out from their home to join a group of people carrying by hand rare and valuable books along the Grand Trunk Road in Zamana from the old library building to the new. It begins with a story of renewal and a message of hope. An American is driving along the same road and two young men on a motorcycle attempted to rob the American at gunpoint. He opened fire and in the ensuing fight Massud is killed, as are both the robbers. This is when the story enters the depths of hell.
The American claims diplomatic immunity, and the Pakistani military want the families to accept payment in compensation for the deaths in accordance with Sharia law. But an extremist fundamentalist group want the families to reject compensation so that the American can be executed. The original leader of this group was killed by a drone attack in Waziristan, and his widow, Aysha, and his son, who lost both his legs in the same attack, have returned to her father, who is the Imam of a mosque in Zamana. Her brother-in-law and his gang of militants have also come to the mosque. Aysha has begun a clandestine relationship with Lily, a rickshaw-wallah and a Christian, whose daughter Helen is being taught by Nargis. There is one further character to introduce and that is Imtiaz. He is a young man who has fled from the Indian Army in Kashmir to learn how to fight. He ends up in a training camp outside Zamana, and he runs away from there.
It is not my task to tell you how all these stories interlock. That you must discover for yourself. The themes of the book however are quite clear. This is a book about corruption. There is the corruption of seeking wealth, that allows justice to be bought, that allows people to buy their way out of trouble, where influence is for sale. There are also the two sides of this corruption process, those who are prepared to be bought and those who are prepared to buy. But there is a much deeper corruption – that of the soul. Nadeem Aslam explores the roots of this kind of corruption – anger, hate, humiliation, feelings of powerlessness, persecution and despair. Nadeem Aslam explores all of this without being judgemental, although I think it is clear for whom ha has sympathy.
Aslam’s other theme is those redeeming qualities in all human life, hope and love. They pervade this story. In many ways, they are the root of it. As I have said, it is an extraordinary tale. It manages to be realistic and uplifting at the same time. Nadeem Aslam is one of the extraordinary writers of our time. He shows us the world as it is, but insists that there is hope. His is a voice against despair. His is a voice of humanity, of hope, of love – and the greatest of these is love.