I was reading in Central Park, midway through Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden, when my brother texted me about the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15. “Mom and Dad are OK,” he began, and like millions of other Americans I immediately turned to the news and to social media to find out what had happened. As I’m sure many others did, I went through stages of emotion—shock, grief, and rage. Concern for my family and friends who live in Boston or were running the marathon that day. But there was something else—a disorientation that distinguished my reaction to Boston from my reaction to previous attacks that I’d experienced, either vicariously through the news or more directly when aiding victims during my time in Iraq when I was a staff officer serving with the 2nd Marine Logistics Group. And that disorientation had everything to do with Aslam’s book.
The Blind Man’s Garden, the British Pakistani author’s fourth novel, is set in Heer, a small town in rural Pakistan. The plot centers on an extended family headed by Rohan, the titular blind man. He’s a pious former schoolteacher and founder of a madrassa that has radicalized since his retirement. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Rohan’s son and foster son get caught up in anti-American fervor and head to the war zone to help wounded civilians. They’re immediately sold to the Taliban, and while their family anxiously awaits word of their fate, a homegrown terrorist plot brews in Rohan’s former school.
In some ways, Aslam’s novel is a picaresque mixed with tropes from adventure-romance, with star-crossed lovers and harrowing crises. The reader comes to know and love a large cast of characters and to desperately root for them to fulfill their relatively simple dreams—to teach in a school, to be with the person who loves them, to have a child—without war or ideology bearing down and destroying them. But Aslam’s concerns are political and literary as much as they are dramatic.
One subplot involving a local peddler is emblematic of Aslam’s method. The peddler’s 14-year-old son, who ran off to fight with the Taliban, is now being ransomed by an Afghan warlord. Rohan accompanies the peddler to a meeting with their contact and there he learns that many of the children are being sexually abused in captivity. Full of disgust for anyone who would ransom children, Rohan rails against the man only to have the tables turned on him. “Your boy was caught fighting against us. He probably killed some of our men. We need money to make sure the widows and the children of those dead men don’t become beggars.” The real hell of life, as Jean Renoir once observed, is that everyone has their reasons.
In the explication of these reasons, Aslam steers the reader through a world where the cultural referents are so different they sometimes seem downright backward. In the town of Heer the 9/11 attack is commonly called “The Battle of The World Trade Center and the Pentagon,” since “there are no innocent people in a guilty nation,” and in an odd bit of Pakistani-inflected imperialism many of the characters mistake the Taliban’s cause for the cause of the Afghan people, only to be brutally disabused of that notion once they cross into Afghanistan. When one character reminisces about his childhood hopes and dreams, those dreams are not of the living, but of martyrs, “their souls just emerging from their bodies assisted by angels and other winged beings, the sun and the clouds red and the birds appearing bloodstained as they flew.”
Experiencing this through journalism can be alienating—a study in difference. Fiction, as practiced by Aslam, invites the reader to try something else: to inhabit the consciousness of a woman in rural Pakistan as she contemplates mildly poisoning her daughter to induce an abortion, since single mothers suffer in her increasingly oppressive society, where “there has not been a single day when she has not heard of a woman killed with bullet or razor or rope, drowned or strangled with her veil, buried alive or burned alive, poisoned or suffocated…in the name of honor-and-shame.” Or to follow along with a character who is interrogated and tortured by Americans. For a veteran like myself this last was particularly upsetting—both because the character holds our sympathy and because, as the recently released Constitution Project’s report on detainee treatment attests, Aslam’s description is accurate.
But most unsettling was witnessing terrorism through the eyes of Aslam’s characters. My brother’s text about the Boston bombings reached me as I was midway through a scene depicting a school hostage crisis. Unlike in news reports, where we generally encounter victims of tragedies as victims first, informed of their deaths before learning anything of their lives, the characters here were ones I already knew about. I shared their hopes that they might have a future beyond this madness. Fairly simple—the basic stuff of fiction—but crucially important for thinking through acts of violence. The thin streams of data I had access to about Boston—the barest facts from breaking news reports and my Facebook feed, where some friends were assuring people they were OK, and where others were urging we bomb whichever country the attackers came from into oblivion—offered far less help in processing the tragedy than did Aslam’s novel.
The Blind Man’s Garden also put those attacks in a sadly broader context. As Americans it’s easy to consider ourselves the primary victims of Islamic radicalism, yet Aslam is acutely sensitive to the daily horror it wreaks on ordinary civilians in the Af-Pak region, many of whom feel the same disgust toward the Islamist use of religion as Americans felt toward Timothy McVeigh’s invocation of patriotism. Making the disorienting shift from fiction to the news, I was too upset at the tragedy for any kind of rage.
Aslam’s novel is not perfect. Toward the end his plotting strains credulity and begins to focus on characters whose worldview is decidedly secular, humanist, and utterly inoffensive to Western liberal sensibilities. This feels like an easy way out. Rohan, who started the madrassa which causes much of the suffering in the book and whose brand of Islam is deeply felt and loving but far from unproblematic, fades into the background. His departure results in an unfortunate loss of complexity. But the overall effect is intensely powerful. Late in the novel, there’s a scene where a character looks upon a group of people prior to a military raid and has the sense that they are all “bodies assigned for wounds, sites of destruction.” It is to resist this approach to humanity that Aslam writes.