‘Maps for Lost Lovers’: Little Murder

SOURCE: The New York Times, May 22, 2005

FROM Adam on, exile has been man’s (and God’s) cruelest punishment. ”An exile’s life is no life,” lamented Leonidas, the ancient Greek poet. Dante, banished from Florence, described the pain in more concrete terms. ”You will leave everything you love most,” he warns in ”The Divine Comedy.” ”You will know how salty / another’s bread tastes.”

The characters in Nadeem Aslam’s powerful novel, ”Maps for Lost Lovers,” are well acquainted with such desolation. Migrants from Pakistan (like Aslam himself), they live in a cold and inhospitable English town they call Dasht-e-Tanhaii — the Desert of Loneliness. It’s a grim place, marred by racism and violence, where the grayness of the sky seems to have filtered into the inhabitants’ souls. ”We should never have come to this deplorable country,” someone complains early on, calling it a ”nest of devilry from where God has been exiled.”
Yet as lonely as these people are, they can’t complain, like Dante, of having left everything behind. This is an era of mass exile, and today’s migrants arrive not as individuals but as communities, armed with all the cultural and social paraphernalia of home. Indeed, although it’s in the English Midlands, the town in Aslam’s novel can resemble a transplanted Pakistani village, its language and customs and religion more or less intact. It is a place where ancestral feuds and gossip are carried over from the homeland, where the diktats of clerics supersede English common law and arranged marriages are the norm. The society at large is kept resolutely at bay: one character, Kaukab, has only three interactions with ”a white person” in a year; when she leaves home, she puts on her ”outdoor clothes” to minimize contact with ”a dirty country, an unsacred country full of people with disgusting habits and practices.”
For Kaukab, as for the multitude of other characters in this intricately populated novel, the alienation of exile is felt as a longing not so much for the homeland as for a simpler, more general sense of human connection. Even within their cultural cocoon, the inhabitants of Dasht-e-Tanhaii are hopelessly estranged — husbands from wives, parents from children. Neighbors, quick to seize on the smallest transgressions of tradition, malign one another with cruel innuendo. While Aslam will inevitably be compared to Monica Ali and Hanif Kureishi, two other authors who have chronicled the lives of South Asian Muslims in England, the psychological and emotional core of his novel is closer to that of Golding’s ”Lord of the Flies.” In both novels, a tight-knit community is marooned in a distant corner of the world, caught in a spiral of violence and vindictiveness.
The central cruelty, the act that drives the narrative, occurs before the novel begins. Kaukab’s brother-in-law, Jugnu, and his lover, Chanda, have disappeared. As we soon discover, they have been murdered by Chanda’s brothers as punishment for living together in sin. The brothers are apprehended, and the novel unfolds as Kaukab and her husband, Shamas — and the rest of Dasht-e-Tanhaii — await the killers’ trial.
Surrounding this main event, like a ring of darkness, are other, no less gruesome ones that appear almost as incidental details. The members of a Muslim family, intent on separating a daughter from her Hindu lover, subject her to a brutal, finally fatal, exorcism. A 12-year-old girl is prevented from seeing a gynecologist lest her hymen be damaged. When her mother discovers that a young bride hasn’t slept with her husband during their first week of marriage, she advises her new son-in-law: ”Rape her tonight.”
Aslam vividly conveys the existential cloud that hangs over the inhabitants of Dasht-e-Tanhaii. His prose is richly atmospheric, his tone engagingly introspective, and his descriptions of the English countryside are infused with an elegiac pastoral sensibility. But the gloominess of his novel is infused with an anger that is occasionally overdone, yielding passages that read like an assault on the religion from which all the characters’ unhappiness seems to originate. ”Allah’s law is Allah’s law,” he writes, ”and cannot be questioned.” (His earlier novel, ”Season of the Rainbirds,” also dealt with the tension between traditional religion and modernity, though not as directly as this one.) In an interview with a British newspaper, Aslam said that ”Maps for Lost Lovers” is, in part, a response to the events of Sept. 11, and that he was inspired to ”condemn the small-scale Sept. 11′s that go on every day.”
Aslam is on firmer ground when he resists political commentary. The litany of cruelties imposed in the name of Islam can strain credibility, and some of the novel’s religious and political debates — for example, the heated conversations between Kaukab and her daughter, Mah-Jabin — feel a bit stilted. Aslam’s real talent is on display when he ventures into his characters’ minds, showing the nuances of their struggles to hold onto God and describing their battles to escape what Joseph Conrad called ”the exile of utter unbelief.”
Chanda’s parents are effective vehicles for this exploration as they struggle to reconcile their love for their murdered daughter with their faith in the religious tradition that condemned her. Kaukab, pining for her dead brother-in-law, must deal with the same irreconcilables. ”He tells her to have faith in his compassion,” Aslam writes of her tortured prayers to Allah. ”And yet she doesn’t know what to do about the fact that she feels utterly empty almost all the time, as though she has outlived herself, as if she has stayed on the train one stop past her destination.”
At such moments, Aslam reveals — artfully and heartbreakingly — a psychology at war with itself. For all the alienation of their exile, his characters’ most devastating and irredeemable loneliness is within.

FROM Adam on, exile has been man’s (and God’s) cruelest punishment. ”An exile’s life is no life,” lamented Leonidas, the ancient Greek poet. Dante, banished from Florence, described the pain in more concrete terms. ”You will leave everything you love most,” he warns in ”The Divine Comedy.” ”You will know how salty / another’s bread tastes.”

The characters in Nadeem Aslam’s powerful novel, ”Maps for Lost Lovers,” are well acquainted with such desolation. Migrants from Pakistan (like Aslam himself), they live in a cold and inhospitable English town they call Dasht-e-Tanhaii — the Desert of Loneliness. It’s a grim place, marred by racism and violence, where the grayness of the sky seems to have filtered into the inhabitants’ souls. ”We should never have come to this deplorable country,” someone complains early on, calling it a ”nest of devilry from where God has been exiled.”

Yet as lonely as these people are, they can’t complain, like Dante, of having left everything behind. This is an era of mass exile, and today’s migrants arrive not as individuals but as communities, armed with all the cultural and social paraphernalia of home. Indeed, although it’s in the English Midlands, the town in Aslam’s novel can resemble a transplanted Pakistani village, its language and customs and religion more or less intact. It is a place where ancestral feuds and gossip are carried over from the homeland, where the diktats of clerics supersede English common law and arranged marriages are the norm. The society at large is kept resolutely at bay: one character, Kaukab, has only three interactions with ”a white person” in a year; when she leaves home, she puts on her ”outdoor clothes” to minimize contact with ”a dirty country, an unsacred country full of people with disgusting habits and practices.”

For Kaukab, as for the multitude of other characters in this intricately populated novel, the alienation of exile is felt as a longing not so much for the homeland as for a simpler, more general sense of human connection. Even within their cultural cocoon, the inhabitants of Dasht-e-Tanhaii are hopelessly estranged — husbands from wives, parents from children. Neighbors, quick to seize on the smallest transgressions of tradition, malign one another with cruel innuendo. While Aslam will inevitably be compared to Monica Ali and Hanif Kureishi, two other authors who have chronicled the lives of South Asian Muslims in England, the psychological and emotional core of his novel is closer to that of Golding’s ”Lord of the Flies.” In both novels, a tight-knit community is marooned in a distant corner of the world, caught in a spiral of violence and vindictiveness.

The central cruelty, the act that drives the narrative, occurs before the novel begins. Kaukab’s brother-in-law, Jugnu, and his lover, Chanda, have disappeared. As we soon discover, they have been murdered by Chanda’s brothers as punishment for living together in sin. The brothers are apprehended, and the novel unfolds as Kaukab and her husband, Shamas — and the rest of Dasht-e-Tanhaii — await the killers’ trial.

Surrounding this main event, like a ring of darkness, are other, no less gruesome ones that appear almost as incidental details. The members of a Muslim family, intent on separating a daughter from her Hindu lover, subject her to a brutal, finally fatal, exorcism. A 12-year-old girl is prevented from seeing a gynecologist lest her hymen be damaged. When her mother discovers that a young bride hasn’t slept with her husband during their first week of marriage, she advises her new son-in-law: ”Rape her tonight.”

Aslam vividly conveys the existential cloud that hangs over the inhabitants of Dasht-e-Tanhaii. His prose is richly atmospheric, his tone engagingly introspective, and his descriptions of the English countryside are infused with an elegiac pastoral sensibility. But the gloominess of his novel is infused with an anger that is occasionally overdone, yielding passages that read like an assault on the religion from which all the characters’ unhappiness seems to originate. ”Allah’s law is Allah’s law,” he writes, ”and cannot be questioned.” (His earlier novel, ”Season of the Rainbirds,” also dealt with the tension between traditional religion and modernity, though not as directly as this one.) In an interview with a British newspaper, Aslam said that ”Maps for Lost Lovers” is, in part, a response to the events of Sept. 11, and that he was inspired to ”condemn the small-scale Sept. 11′s that go on every day.”

Aslam is on firmer ground when he resists political commentary. The litany of cruelties imposed in the name of Islam can strain credibility, and some of the novel’s religious and political debates — for example, the heated conversations between Kaukab and her daughter, Mah-Jabin — feel a bit stilted. Aslam’s real talent is on display when he ventures into his characters’ minds, showing the nuances of their struggles to hold onto God and describing their battles to escape what Joseph Conrad called ”the exile of utter unbelief.”

Chanda’s parents are effective vehicles for this exploration as they struggle to reconcile their love for their murdered daughter with their faith in the religious tradition that condemned her. Kaukab, pining for her dead brother-in-law, must deal with the same irreconcilables. ”He tells her to have faith in his compassion,” Aslam writes of her tortured prayers to Allah. ”And yet she doesn’t know what to do about the fact that she feels utterly empty almost all the time, as though she has outlived herself, as if she has stayed on the train one stop past her destination.”

At such moments, Aslam reveals — artfully and heartbreakingly — a psychology at war with itself. For all the alienation of their exile, his characters’ most devastating and irredeemable loneliness is within.

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