Afghanistan and the Middle East are hot topics in current world politics, so it is not altogether a surprise that many authors have started contemplating the history of these controversial countries and their relationship with the West. Nadeem Aslam is a writer originally from Pakistan who fled with his family when the regime frowned upon communists like his father. He published two novels about Pakistan culture, but The Wasted Vigil is his first try at the complicated country of Afghanistan. After researching the land, its history, and interviewing refuges, Aslam brings a story that is tragic, painful, pointed, and political.
The story takes place in modern day, although much of it actually stems from over twenty years before when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan took place. Marcus, an English doctor who married a forward thinking Afghan woman, is trapped inside his once-happy home by the memories of his family. Although there is nothing really left in his home but tragedy, Marcus won’t leave as long as he might find some information on his daughter Zameem’s long lost son. Marcus takes in several emotional refuges into his home, including the Soviet born Lara, who searches for answers to her soldier brother’s disappearance, and Zameen’s American lover, David.
In time the little family embraces Casa, a jihadist who hides out with them out of fear that his own organization wants to kill him. David hides from Marcus and Lara the truth about Zameen, her death, and her connection to Lara’s missing brother. The story moves fluidly between the present tense, where these characters all live nearby and yet are worlds apart, and then looking into the past and the journeys that brought each of them there. Marcus, in particular, has a harsh story about what happened when his marriage was no longer tolerated by the Taliban and what his wife was forced to do to him that drove her mad. At least half of the plot is about recollection of the past and how the Soviet war turned Afghanistan to where it is now, while the present story slowly spirals into hell for everyone involved.
All of Aslam’s characters are very well developed and provide different points of views and backgrounds for the reader to connect with. Marcus is the older and wiser father figure with a lifetime of trauma and regret, while David seems constantly at war with himself over his duty to his country and his complicated feelings toward the Afghan culture. Lara’s searching for her brother, a deserter, who destroyed her reputation in the Soviet Union, causing her to enter a lukewarm marriage to save herself. Casa, the most difficult case to make, is a faithful Muslim and a supporter of terrorist bombers. The first time we meet him in the book he traps a young man in a car that is set to blow up, just in case the bomber changed his mind before giving his life to Allah. And yet Aslam — and the readers — get a glimpse into Casa’s reasoning, his faith, and while it will be alien to many readers, it’s a valiant attempt to express what would lead to this extremist point of view. Casa is more than the stereotypical crazy fundamentalist bomber, hater of all things American; he’s a soldier of Islam who believes doing so protects the country and faith he loves so much. In many ways, he is exactly like any other patriotic soldier from another country, willing to do whatever it takes to save his people.
The only complaint I would have about this book is that sometimes the language is a little too over-the-top and flowery. The artistic styling of Aslam can be very visual and poetic, but this is a case where less can be more. When his descriptions get heavy-handed, it can take away from the actual story and lead the reader away from the characters. There are stunning ideas in this book, such as Marcus’ wife nailing their books to the ceilings in her madness to keep them away from the Taliban, and this is a detail that is brought back brilliantly as the novel goes on when the books fall from time to time. It is the little additions and descriptions that are truly memorable to this story, and while Aslam’s poetic way of writing can be beautiful, it can also be distracting — especially in the beginning when you are just trying to get into the story, and your interest fractures way too easily in the first few chapters. Once you get involved in the characters and flow of the plot, however, you’ll forgive his occasional meandering.
The Wasted Vigil is an interesting look into Afghanistan and the Soviet war that helped cripple its current state, with a cast of eclectic and unique characters, and the ability to strike right into the reader’s heart. This is a heavy book and not to be read if you’re in a light, playful mood. It will keep you thinking late into the evening, and wondering whether there will ever be a way to find a middle ground with a culture so different — and in some ways very similar — to the West. There is a slight push against the United States and their position in the current war. Aslam’s criticism is not pointed to one faction entirely, but rather a close look at where it all stems from. The Wasted Vigil is out in paperback in stores now and recommended for readers interested in the Middle East, the current conflict, and who are ready to have their heart broken a few times.