I hate that I have to write this, but I did not love The Blind Man’s Garden. It hurts me to say that because for years I have thought that Nadeem Aslam is one of South Asian literature’s brightest stars. I loved his Maps for Lost Lovers. The imagery in The Wasted Vigil was breath taking, but The Blind Man’s Garden kind of left me cold.
It recounts to the story of two brothers who set off to fight in Afghanistan in the months following 9/11, and the extended family they leave behind in Pakistan. Although I did not enjoy the novel, I do think that it is perhaps one of the most important novels to document the conflicting tensions that existed in post 9/11 Pakistan and Afghanistan. Aslam deftly shows that in that world the conflicts were all in shades of grey, not black and white as they were often portrayed in western media. He also shows that the decision to fight on any of the sides in this conflict may not have so much to with right and wrong, but with survival, personal revenge, pride and dignity.
As with The Wasted Vigil, Aslam’s imagery is haunting. In The Blind Man’s Garden there is the recurring image of a fakir draped in chains who carries the wishes, hopes and dreams of devotees in each link of the chain that weighs down his body. The fakir is eventually killed and his chains are used to secure an American prisoner. Simplistic though this description seems, the image is suffused with meaning that accrues throughout the narrative.
So why did I not like this novel? As I write this, it is difficult to say, but I certainly found reading it a bit of a slog. It may come down to the fact that I don’t really enjoy war novels. There were sections of the story that I enjoyed immensely, but they tended to be the secondary stories. It may also be that the narrative was weighed down by language. It is not the most accessible of books to read. I started reading The Blind Man’s Garden after reading Janet Evanovich, which made reading Aslam’s prose feel a little like wading through a swamp, a beautiful swamp, but still a swamp.
Who would like this book? This book is for someone who is looking for a highly nuanced story about the was in Afghanistan and who is not afraid of a very literary read. In some ways it reminded me of The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. Both novels show the complexities of being Muslim in the modern world and the sometimes unlikely factors that contribute to making one more or less conservative in their religious views.