A Cosmos of Traditionalist Muslim Migrants
Nadeem Aslam is a courageous man. Not many Muslim authors dare to set about their religion as outspokenly as he does.
If life in Pakistani communities in England really is as violent and corrupt as Aslam says, his life must be at risk since the publication of his second novel. Until now, though, religious Pakistanis have avoided this book as the Devil avoids holy water. They know why.
Islam as a sinister delusion
If this novel is read in the context of current debates on Islam, the message is clear: Islam as it is interpreted and practised by most Muslim immigrants is a sinister delusion.
Mosques are a paradise for pederasts, just as Catholic seminaries are for priests. Pious mothers let their infants almost starve during the Ramadan period of fasting: 'He just won't drink during daylight hours'. Female babies are, if possible, aborted.
Highly devout parents with disobedient daughters call in an exorcist: 'The girl was taken into the cellar and beaten for several days with the mother and father in the room above reading the Koran out loud. She was not fed or given water for the duration and wasn't allowed to fall asleep.'
When, however, a son is insubordinate a mother gets the imam to pronounce incantations over a toxic sedative which she then sprinkles on his food. If children get fed up with all of this and run away from home, a secret organisation gets them back, discretely deploying violence.
An adult woman who gets involved with men of a different faith, or has a relationship before marriage, is outlawed by the community. If a girl who has been forced to marry her cousin refuses to consummate this relationship, her (!) mother whispers to the husband: 'Rape her tonight!'. That is the loathsome Islam described by Nadeem Aslam (who assures us that all these cases are documented), but a depiction that blames everything bad on religion and tradition inevitably involves a degree of one-sidedness.
Abundance of images and symbols
That seems all the more strident – and unpleasantly so – in contrast with the novel's extravagant abundance of images and symbols. Aslam stresses that he spent eleven years writing this book. The outcome is akin to a house planned on much too large a scale, complete on one side down to the last detail, but looking on the other like an abandoned ruin made just about habitable.
Maps for Lost Lovers describes the hopes, wishes, fears, and aberrations of Pakistani immigrants in England. The setting is an area of a small English town inhabited almost entirely by foreigners from the sub-continent, the time the mid-1990s.
At the centre of the story is the family of Shamas and his wife Kaukab, their sons Charag and Ujala, and their daughter Mah-Jabin. The father is a communist but Kaukab remains a highly devout, extremely traditional, uneducated woman who has never learned anything other than how to cook very well.
"Good" Pakistani Islamic morality
The rift within the family, the belated outcome of an arranged marriage, is the stuff of tragedy, constituting the heart of the novel. As an upholder of tradition and of good Pakistani Islamic morality, Kaukab is on her own in confronting her progressive husband and her children, who become more and more British as they get older.
Incapable of finding her way in the world of her husband and children because of her lack of English, lonely in exile and plagued by all kinds of fears, this woman is profoundly unhappy.
She loves her children more than anything else and yet their infrequent meetings invariably lead to quarrels and profound hurt on both sides. In his unfolding of this conflict Aslam achieves the most moving parts of his book with splendid archetypal dialogue characteristic of such disputes.
Most of these scenes are narrated from Kaukab's viewpoint, but the reader cannot develop any sympathy for this tragic figure. Kaukab's opinions, shaped by a traditional and decidedly superstitious form of Islam, and the awful things she does as a result, such as making an infant fast, are far too terrible.
Her love for the children is self-centred and her narrow-mindedness exceeds what is conceivable in our part of the world, but appears to be characteristic of the milieu described.
owever, Shamas and the children are depicted as being exceptionally sympathetic and reasonable, and are always right in their fruitless clashes with the mother, at least from the point of view of a Western reader, so the tragic constellation of characters is immediately reduced to an unrestrained over-simplification in which good and evil, right and wrong, are too clearly attributed to create tension or pity.
In a basically justified wish to emphasise the progressive viewpoint and to discredit the mother's foolish religiosity, the author betrays his material. Everything that comes from Pakistan and is linked with Islam is seen as bad, and everything the West teaches as good, with nothing in between: 'A religion that has given dignity to millions around the world? Amputations, stoning to death, flogging - not barbaric?'
Aslam wouldn't have worked on this book for eleven years if he hadn't sensed that this is too weak for an ambitious novel. In compensation he has equipped his ruin with numerous little towers, bay windows, and in places masterly ornamentation, as well as including a mini-mystery as scaffolding to render it impervious to criticism.
The little towers include the descriptions of Pakistani cooking, which are initially appetising but after innumerable repetitions result in surfeit. Kaukab isn't only a fanatical Muslim, she's also a fanatical cook. Going by the lavish dishes prepared and served here, the author must have fantasised about gorging himself during his eleven years of seclusion.
The ornamentation includes the equally luxuriant descriptions, sometimes delightful and sometimes boring, of English flora and the world of moths and butterflies. There are models for this in Islamic mystical writing to which the author probably wishes to allude, but nevertheless it seems mannered.
Finally, this adornment includes many highly poetic comparisons which also sometimes come close to preciosity. Of a lake Aslam writes: 'The colour of its waves is that particular blue-grey-green found on the edge of a sheet of glass, that bright strip of colour between the two surfaces.'
Which leaves the scaffolding: the disappearance of Shamas' brother and his young Pakistani lover, which sets events in motion. This honour killing, the elucidation of which at the end of the book is insistently reminiscent of the style deployed in García Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold, is intended to provide an additional element of tension and tragedy but remains only one of numerous sub-plots.
It is much less moving than, say, the story of the divorced Suraya who starts a relationship with Shamas because she wants to return to her husband and child but under Islamic law must first find a so-called interim husband who will marry and in turn reject her.
Stylistically skilful, often shallow in expression, cobbled together structurally, but containing stories with great potential, Nadeem Aslam's novel – rather overpraised in the English-speaking world – leaves an ambivalent impression.
It can be unreservedly recommended to people interested in the cosmos of traditionalist Muslim migrants to the West – an interest that is increasingly necessary. If the reader has such an interest, Maps for Lost Lovers is a good read and much will be learned. However, we hope that for his next book Aslam will have less time and a better editor.
© Fikrun wa Fann / Art and Thought 2006
Translated from the German by Tim Nevill
Nadeem Aslam, Maps for Lost Lovers, Vintage International, May 2006, 400 pp.