FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Review: Nadeem Aslam’s “The Golden Legend”

Nadeem Aslam’s passionate condemnation of Islamic extremism in The Golden Legend ought to answer the question of where are the Muslim critics of fundamentalism. In four earlier novels, Aslam (who is Pakistani) has stood, almost single-handedly, as the voice of reason, writing about a troubled area of the world still almost totally misunderstood by the West. He’s a brilliant novelist, one of two or three truly great writers in the world today. His work reminds me of Orhan Pamuk at an earlier stage of his career. And, yes, like Pamuk, Nadeem Aslam ought to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. There’s a precedent for this because Pamuk was in his early fifties, in 2006, when he was recognized with the award. Aslam has just entered his fifties.

Let me be clear that Aslam is equally harsh in his indictment of the West and what it has done (and continues to do) in the Islamic world. The Golden Legend begins during an innocent moment in a fictive city named Zamana, in Pakistan, when school children are on the streets, in a human chain, moving books from an old library to a new one.  “The majority of the library’s books had already been taken to the new premises. The volumes in the Islamic section were the ones that would be moved this morning. Since each one of these texts contained the names of Allah or Muhammad somewhere, it had been decided they should be taken from one building to the other by hand. In a truck or cart the risk was too great of something coming into contact with uncleanliness.”

Massud and his wife Nargis (who are both in their fifties and architects) observe the human chain of children transferring the books, but then, suddenly, a vehicle driven by a Westerner stops near-by. The children look at the white man curiously. Then a motorcycle drives up and a shooting match begins that results in Massud’s as well as several other bystander’s deaths. How ironic that just before he died, Massud had been handed a large book he recognized as having been “written by his father, [and] published the year Massud was born.” The Westerner survives and frantically begins making calls on his cell phone.

From this incident of street terrorism, Aslam will build a complex narrative involving Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, the government’s complicity with the CIA, the conflicts between Muslims and Christians, and—above all—books, literature, and their influence on human lives. Contextually, in an interview, Aslam has explained the inspiration for his novel. While he was still writing his previous novel, The Blind goldenlegendMan’s Garden, “the governor of the Punjab province in Pakistan…was murdered by his bodyguard. The governor had objected to Pakistan’s blasphemy law, a law that is being misused. You can go to a police station and say I heard my neighbor say something rude about God or Muhammad, and the police arrest the neighbor and you can move into his house. Innocent people are dead or in jail because of that law.”

The abuse of the blasphemy law is carefully woven into the structure of The Golden Legend. First, the government asks the families of the people murdered on the street by the American to forgive him so that he can be sent home. Nargis is intimidated by a man from the country’s intelligence services who wants her to agree to this plan. She was born a Christian, and although she accepted Islam when she married Massud, she never told him about her Christian past. The intelligence man roughs her up and later threatens her with exposure. Massud and Nargis for years have employed a Christian family to work for them. The wife, whose name was Grace, was murdered, some years ago, and her husband, Lily, has begun a secret liaison with a Muslim woman, who has also lost her spouse. Such an arrangement is obviously forbidden. The imam of the local mosque has recently begun making announcements, identifying people who have broken the blasphemy laws. Lily, after being accused of sexual relations with the Muslim woman, has to run for his life, and during his flight a riot erupts that results in the deaths of several other Christians in the city’s minority community.

To complicate things even more, Helen (Grace and Lily’s twenty-year-old daughter) also begins a relationship that bridges religious differences. After the riot, both Helen and her father become wanted suspects with posters of their faces plastered throughout the city. When tensions heat up, the intelligence man threatens Nargis with death because she has sheltered Lily and his daughter. Obviously, there is no way this story can end happily, especially the tensions between the Muslims and the Christians. Aslam develops these conflicts in seemingly insignificant, minor incidents that act as counterbalance to the more significant threats against the novel’s main characters. For example, a boy who looks as if he might be ten years old, approaches Helen with a knife, threatening to stab her. When Helen asks what he is doing, the child responds, “I have to see [if] Christians have black blood.” These are the kind of details that Aslam adds to his story, seemingly minor but horrible in their implications.

There are dozens of similar brief incidents, illustrating Muslim misunderstandings and stereotypes of Christians /Westerners. The same holds true for Western views of Muslims. The ignorance of the each other has emerged from centuries of prejudice, intolerance, and a continued lack of curiosity about the Other. I’d also call it a failure of our religious and educational constructs. It’s much easier to hide within one’s prejudices than confront them with reason. To the remark that Islam is not compatible with the modern world, a policeman in the story remarks, “There is only one place where Islam and the modern world can meet—and that’s the battlefield.” Shockingly, it appears that current residents of the White House and their advisors also support this statement and—worse—want to hasten the day of reckoning. If this is the way our most powerful leaders act, what hope is there for the common man?

The novel addresses not only Muslim/Western conflicts of ideology and theology but also the centuries of tensions between Hindus and Muslims. In one of the most disturbing vignettes in the novel, after they have caught a Christian (accused of blasphemy), Muslim police stand around him in a circle and shoot him with their guns, believing that killing an infidel will take them to paradise. “All their lives they had lied, deceived, been envious, neglected prayers and fasts, and had disrespected their elders and brutalised innocent fellow Muslims and engaged in sordid acts, they had struck women, they had sodomised children, they had stolen from the sick and the hungry—and here was salvation, the instant guarantee of Paradise.” Isn’t this also the logic of the suicide bomber? (In The Blind Man’s Garden, Alsam exposed the duplicity of this practice by noting that imams do not pick their own children for such acts.)

Finally, there is the question of literature, books, that permeates the entire novel, beginning with the students passing books to one another as they are moved to the new library. The 987 page book, That They Might Know One Another, that Massud was holding when he was shot, written by his father, was a history of mankind’s ability to live in tolerance in spite of our differences, “the hidden or forgotten contributions that one set of humans had made towards the happiness and knowledge of another. Traditions and histories had always mingled, and nothing in the East or the West was ever pure.” Nargis took the book (which was illustrated) home with her. When the intelligence officer came to visit her several days later and convince her to pardon the American who shot her husband, and when he sensed that she would not accept his offer, he took out a knife and began mutilating the book, cutting out illustrations of human figures (which Islam forbids) and destroying the binding. His intent is clear: we can also destroy people if they do not do what we want.

All that happens early in the story, shortly after Massud is killed. And afterwards, Nargis, and Helen, and Helen’s Muslim lover will slowly repair the book’s binding, using golden thread to restore the beloved volume to what it was. Nargis reflects on the incident repeatedly, one time musing, “Some things were more beautiful and valuable for having been broken.” Late in the novel, Lily (who is illiterate) will remember what Helen told him on one occasion, “When Genghis Khan’s forces invaded Zamana in 1221, the commander had ordered every book in the city to be burned….” Books, the written word, are a force to destroy ignorance, bigotry, and prejudice. No wonder that one of the first thing dictators do is destroy them. How chilling that sentence is today when we live in the country where the president does not read books and believes that the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities, and NPR, ought to be eliminated.

Nadeem Aslam’s The Golden Legend is a magical book, but also a pragmatic one, offering hope in the face of violence and tragedy, bigotry, and intolerance. Aslam’s writing is lyrical and expansive, luminescent, replete with stunningly beautiful passages. His characters resist oppression, growing in strength and dignity as they refuse to bend to hateful authority. Aslam dares to write about the forces that, if left unchecked, will destroy the world. Not everything is ugly or hopeless. As he tells us, even a damaged rose still has perfume.

Nadeem Aslam: The Golden Legend
Knopf, 319 pp., $27.95

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Ruling Class Operatives Say the Darndest Things: On Devils Known and Not
Conn Hallinan
The Great Game Comes to Syria
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
William Blum
Anti-Empire Report: Unseen Persons
Lawrence Davidson
Missiles Over Damascus
Patrick Cockburn
The Plight of the Yazidi of Afrin
Pete Dolack
Fooled Again? Trump Trade Policy Elevates Corporate Power
Stan Cox
For Climate Mobilization, Look to 1960s Vietnam Before Turning to 1940s America
William Hawes
Global Weirding
Dan Glazebrook
World War is Still in the Cards
Nick Pemberton
In Defense of Cardi B: Beyond Bourgeois PC Culture
Ishmael Reed
Hollywood’s Last Days?
Peter Certo
There Was Nothing Humanitarian About Our Strikes on Syria
Dean Baker
China’s “Currency Devaluation Game”
Ann Garrison
Why Don’t We All Vote to Commit International Crimes?
LEJ Rachell
The Baddest Black Power Artist You Never Heard Of
Lawrence Ware
All Hell Broke Out in Oklahoma
Franklin Lamb
Tehran’s Syria: Lebanon Colonization Project is Collapsing
Donny Swanson
Janus v. AFSCME: What’s It All About?
Will Podmore
Brexit and the Windrush Britons
Brian Saady
Boehner’s Marijuana Lobbying is Symptomatic of Special-Interest Problem
Julian Vigo
Google’s Delisting and Censorship of Information
Patrick Walker
Political Dynamite: Poor People’s Campaign and the Movement for a People’s Party
Fred Gardner
Medical Board to MDs: Emphasize Dangers of Marijuana
Rob Seimetz
We Must Stand In Solidarity With Eric Reid
Missy Comley Beattie
Remembering Barbara Bush
Wim Laven
Teaching Peace in a Time of Hate
Thomas Knapp
Freedom is Winning in the Encryption Arms Race
Mir Alikhan
There Won’t be Peace in Afghanistan Until There’s Peace in Kashmir
Robert Koehler
Playing War in Syria
Tamara Pearson
US Shootings: Gun Industry Killing More People Overseas
John Feffer
Trump’s Trade War is About Trump Not China
Morris Pearl
Why the Census Shouldn’t Ask About Citizenship
Ralph Nader
Bill Curry on the Move against Public Corruption
Josh Hoxie
Five Tax Myths Debunked
Leslie Mullin
Democratic Space in Adverse Times: Milestone at Haiti’s University of the Aristide Foundation
Louis Proyect
Syria and Neo-McCarthyism
Dean Baker
Finance 202 Meets Economics 101
Abel Cohen
Forget Gun Control, Try Bullet Control
Robert Fantina
“Damascus Time:” An Iranian Movie
David Yearsley
Bach and Taxes
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail