Nadeem Aslam received much critical praise for his two earlier works Maps for Lost Lovers was the winner of the Kiriyama Prize and was longlised for the Booker prize. Little wonder that there was great anticipation for his next novel. Unlike the eleven year wait between the first two books, the wait for this new one was a mere four years. I have to warn you that Wasted Vigil is by no means an easy read.
It’s the story of a Russian woman Lara who arrives in Afghanistan to look for her brother Benedikt, who was sent to fight during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The book’s tone is set when misfortune befalls her at the beginning of her trip. Fortunately for her she falls into the hands of Marcus, a kind Englishman who has been living in the country for the past 40 years as he was married to an Afghan woman. It turns out that Zameen, Marcus’ daughter who was captured by the Soviets might have knowledge of Benedikt's disappearance. From this beginning we slowly discover that their stories are more closely intertwined than we can imagine.
Aslam certainly takes his time to build his story and characters into place. And he spares the reader not one single grim detail of the travails and horrors (mutilations, rapes and landmines are just some of them) that have befallen Afghanistan and its people. If the author’s goal was to provide yet more reasons to fear and loathe the Taliban, he has succeeded admirably. One is left with the impression that there is no redemption for the people who are caught under the Taliban’s yoke. He is likewise unsparing of the US for their responsibility in creating the monstrous oppression that is now entrenched in Afghanistan. To read this book is to have your breath taken away by the horrors. This is not to say that Aslam has written a bad book. Far from it. He has a beautifully poetic way with words and there is a certain tenderness, lyricism even, in the way he writes passages of this difficult story. More importantly he is able to fully present the complexity that is the political history of the country. This is an important book to read if you want to make some sense of the hotbed that is now Afghanist and and Pakistan though I wish he had written it with a bit more hope. I'd like to think that the Afghan history is much more than death and horrors.