Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Many years ago, when I was doing research in Coventry Central Library, I came across a list they were promoting of books by British Asian authors. One of those books was Maps for Lost Lovers, Nadeem Aslam’s novel set among the Pakistani community in Bradford, West Yorkshire. It became one of the first novels I read by a British Asian author.

In the intervening years, I lost track of Aslam, so I was delighted to be reintroduced to him via the Jhalak Prize shortlist, which this year includes his novel – the first for many years to be set in Pakistan – The Golden Legend.

The novel opens with the accidental shooting of Massud, one of a husband-and-wife team of architects, by an American. His widow, Nargis, is quickly caught up in the cross-currents of political expediency and religious extremism. As feelings run high, two Christian friends, Helen, whom they have brought up almost as their daughter, and her father Lily, are ensnared in accusations of blasphemy. When the Christian quarter of Badami Bagh is attacked, Helen and Nargis flee to a hidden island when Nargis and Massud once tried to build and mosque that would reconcile the four sects of Islam. Lily has vanished, but they are helped by a disillusioned Kashmiri insurgent, Imran.

The novel contains images of such lyricism they feel almost like the creations of a magical realist – beginning with scale models of two of the world’s most famous mosques, which in the winter form cosy work cabins for the two architects and in summer are winched up into the rafters out of the way. But the novel is in fact rooted firmly – and grimly – in reality. Key events in the novel – the shooting incident involving a CIA contractor with which the book opens, the attack on the Sufi shrine, the death of a Catholic Bishop – all are based on real events. One of the central characters, the Kashmiri Imran, is based on a young man the author met in Pakistan.

The Golden Legend examines religious extremism, intolerance, the concept of blasphemy, and the consequences of India and Pakistan’s long tug of war over Kashmir. Its portrayal of modern day Pakistan is brutal – a searing indictment of the ever-narrowing definition of ‘purity’ applied to determine who belongs in ‘The Land of the Pure’ – first rooting out Hindus and Sikhs, then all-but eliminating other minority religions, and now turning equally ruthlessly on sects within Islam. But just as importantly, The Golden Legend holds up a mirror to Britain and the USA, warning them of the consequences path they have both embarked on, of narrowing what it means to be British or American.

For Aslam, hope for the future lies in the people who are still prepared to struggle for something better. As one of his characters says:

“I am only speaking for myself when I say that despair has to be earned. I personally have not done all that I can to change things. I have not yet earned the right to despair.”

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: We That Are Young by Preti Taneja; A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories centred round religious and political extremism; lyrical, haunting prose

Perfect Accompaniment: A cup of tea and a kulcha (Punjabi naan)

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

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