Nadeen Aslam’s 2008 "The Wasted Vigil" is the best English-language novel about the Afghan wars of the last decade. The novel captures the immense tragedy of Afghanistan of the thirty-year conflict. The novel’s brilliantly shows how this tragedy affects Afghanis, English, Americans, and Russians—all imperial dreams end in ruin for the dreamers as well as bring ruins to Afghanistan.
Aslam was born in Paskistan to a secular family, and was brought to England when he was fourteen. He has written two fine previous novels about Pakistanis.
"The Wasted Vigil" focuses on the walking wounded of the Afghan Wars who find a short refuge with Marcus, an English doctor who has a house in a small town outside Jalalabad under the Tora Bora Mountains and has lived there for decades. Marcus himself is one of the walking wounded; his Afghan doctor wife Qatrina was murdered by the Taliban, his daughter Zameen was captured by the Russians and disappeared, and he’s searching for his long lost grandson. Marcus gives refuge to Lara, a Russian woman searching for her lost brother Benedikt, a soldier in the Russian army in Afghanistan who defected and disappeared.
The next walking wounded is David Town, an American who once loved Marcus’s daughter Zameen, comes to visit Marcus and to see the school he has built. Town, once a CIA anti-Communist spy, saw how his work arming Muslim fundamentalists helped destroy Zameen who was murdered by these same funademantalists. Now he’s long given up spying and tries to build schools in American-dominated Afghanistan as way of repentence. He is mourning his lost love Zameen.
Casa is a young Taliban who helps bomb David's school and later gets wounded. David, not knowing that Case hepled bomb his school, rescues him but Casa’s comrades see him received money from David, the American, so they are out to kill their former comrade. Casa finds refuge with Marcus. Casa is brilliantly portrayed as an orphan missing his family he never knew raised in madrassas and trained as a mujahaddin who became his new family. Lastly, Dunia, a young Afghani female schoolteacher whom the warlords want to kill as they close down her school, finds refuge with Marcus.
As these characters struggle to rebuild their lives and develop friendships, two love affairs begin—David allows himself to care again for Lara while Casa, the Taliban, begins to shyly fall in love with the modern Afghani Dunia. Great loves resonate throughout this novel: Marcus and his wife Qatrina; David and Zameen. Marcus and his wife had devoted their lives to books, art, music, and healing, so the novel is infused with marvelous language and love for the Afghani/Persian art, music, and literature.
As the characters search for the lost relatives, the novels frequently flashes back to decades previously where Marcus, his wife Qatrina, his daughter Zameen, the Russian soldier Benedikt, David, and the Afghani warlords all interact. Many of male characters--David, Casa, Benedikt the Russian soldier--have been modeled by childhood into warriors and done terrible acts as adults yet the novelist shows us their vulnerabilities and the terrible price these three pay. The women--the Russian Lara and the Afghans Quintirina and Dunia--suffer as their men, their country, and their own lives are impaled. Aslam mixes immense beauty of love and love of literature with horrible stories of atrocities the main characters suffer. No character is stereotyped but all are flawed and wounded but capable of love.
As an new war heats up between Americans and the resurgent Taliban, war again edges even closer to Marcus’s home, so the refuge Marcus hosts is only temporary. The novel ends in tragedy again for the main characters mimicking the larger tragedy of Afghanistan. Read this novel—it’s sad, haunting, and brilliant.