Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nadeem Aslam is like a James Joyce in 2004

Nadeem Aslem’s 2004 novel "Maps for Lost Lovers" is an extraordinarily book. Aslam, a Pakistani English writer, is similar to Joyce in his amazing use of the English language, his obsession with exile, and his concerns with lovers suffering from society’s repression.

Aslam was born in Pakistan, but moved to England when he was 14 because his father, who was a Communist, a poet, and a film director, had to flee President Zia’s regime which was torturing dissidents. Exile is one of the great themes for Aslam exiled from Pakistan as it was from Joyce who self-exiled himself from Ireland. In the novel the Pakistani immigrants call their English town Dashte-e-Tanhaii the Wilderness of Solitude or the Desert of Loneliness to symbolize their exile from Pakistan. They give all streets in their English town Pakistani names. Despite white racists, they create their own rich culture in England.

The novelist interweaves the stories of the immigrants' lives in Dashte-e-Tanhaii with their past lives in Pakistan as he recreates a new fictional universe of Pakistan England. No main characters are whites. In fact, some of the main characters hardly speak to whites at all. Just as Joyce was the first to capture the city Dublin and Dubliners in English fiction, Aslam recreates brick by brick the Pakistani English world in fiction including traumas of the past such as the riveting scene where the main character’s grandfather was a victim of British brutal attack to put down a rebellion in English India.

The novel’s hero and heroine are a mismatched married couple: the secular, cosmopolitan former-poet former Communist Shamas is married to the pious Muslim Kaukab. Though the novelist clearly sides with the husband Shams, he brilliantly brings alive the wife who is the greatest character in the novel. Since her three children have rebelled against her, she deeply suffers their absence. Though husband and wife love each other, they have been at odds ideologically for so long their marriage is more a war zone than a haven. While Shamas has had a good education and works as a social worker, his wife barely speaks English and spends her life isolated within home. Kaukab is a some ways a tragic character.

The novel interweaves the stories of four pairs of lost lovers into their story of the alienated husband and wife. Kaukab like the other pious Muslims constantly try to arrange marriages for her children, but the younger generation rebel against arranged marriage to fall in love with taboo partners. Falling for the wrong person is a tragedy as old as Romeo and Juliet but Aslam manages to make the tragedy current.

Shamas's brother Jugnu and his lover Chanda were living unmarried in Dashte-e-Tanhaii in England. Chanda’s parents married her off to a new immigrant who disappeared, so she is unable to get divorced according to Muslim law. Now Jugni and Chanda have disappeared. After their disappearance some said Chanda’s brothers killed them in an honor killing while others say the two lovers will return. The novel is part detective tale as the story of what happens to the lost lovers slowly unravels. The second pair of lost lovers is Kiran, a Sikh, who years ago in England fell in love with a Muslim Pakistani. His family split up the two lovers but they yearn for each other for decades.

A third story of lost lovers interweaved in the novel is a Hindu boy and Muslim girl in Dashte-e-Tanhaii. The girl’s family attempts to break them up, calling the girl posessed. The final pair of lost lovers is the book’s hero Shamas who has long been married to Kaukab but who falls in love with Suraya who disappears.

Just like Joyce imported Irish sensibility into the English language, Aslam has imported a Pakistani sensibility into English. The novelist has said, “I wanted every chapter of Maps for Lost Lovers to be like a Persian miniature. In these miniatures, a small piece of paper … holds an immense wealth of beauty, color and detail. Trees have leaves each perfectly rendered. Flowers are moments old and the tilework of the palaces and mosques is lovingly detailed. That was the aim in Maps...” Sentence by sentence he recreated Persian miniatures of astonishing loveliness celebrating the lighting, the butterflies, the lakeside near where his characters live—celebrating the whole natural universe. The novelists celebrates Urdu poets, Persian minatures, dissidents, Pakistani traditional foods, women using henna. Just like Joyce gave his Irish an immensenly rich inner life, so does Aslam for his Pakistani characters. Aslam is in love with being Pakistani only as those who have suffered exile can love their missing country.

This novel tells a spell binding tale of what happens to all the lost lovers. By the end we know how families have been destroyed and reunited. Lovers are killed but love reaches beyond their deaths. Just as Joyce brought alive the rich life of Dubliners into English fiction, Aslam has recreated with subtlety, compassion and brilliance in English the world of Pakistani immigrants. The novel is heartbreaking, dazzling, and original.


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