Friday, January 20, 2006

Maps for Lost Lovers (3)

Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Nadeem Aslam's main achievement is closely linked to the fact that he is a Pakistani writing in English about Pakistanis in England. You would expect a novel of gritty realism in a stark urban setting charting faint alienated lives that only burst into colour with violence. But, no.
One of the most unexpected qualities of this novel is its lyricism, a lyricism that is all the more surprising in that it depicts the attachment of its main characters to nature. You see sub-continental immigrants in a garden of English delights intensely observed and lovingly described.

The water and the afternoon sky and the stones visible in the shallower parts of the lake are all grey, blue-black, white and in those shallow areas the mosses too look dark, those long emerald-green and slimy strands which trailed between the toes of his children like thongs of delicate sandals when they paddled in the water with the hems rolled up.
This is Shamas looking out the window of his part-time Urdu bookshop, waiting for the woman who is his escape from the narrow world of his wife, but who herself is using him to re-enter that world. What he looks at - the water, the afternoon sky, the mosses - is impregnated with his memories (he sees dark-coloured mosses - his memory evokes the green of daylight), and they are memories of his children immersed in English nature like Christopher Robin in the wood.
Pakistani immigrants and idyllic English nature. But there's another element to put beside this. I said that the English town that is the setting of this novel was unnamed. Not quite. It does have a name: Dasht-e-Tanhaii. It means The Wilderness of Solitude; The Desert of Loneliness. Even the streets are anonymous in English, but they have Pakistani names. (I do wonder about this - do Pakistanis really rename the streets to be more user-friendly?) Naturally, there is a link; socially, they are an island. The female characters can count the number of contacts with English people they've had in a year, and the number is always under 10. No - this is not a polemic about British racism, or anything as limited or crippled as that. But it is about the inevitable cruelty of what happens when a culture stilled in time tries to erect barriers to another vastly more powerful culture, to put up mud walls against cruise missiles. (Perhaps not the most appropriate analogy, but I can't think of anything better at the moment.) The point is that no-one here can do otherwise, given the means they have. Just as in the greatest tragedies.

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