In an early scene in The Blind Man’s Garden, about the fate of a Pakistani family in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the ground suddenly explodes to reveal a herd of spirited horses; in another, a widower sees his long-dead wife in a window across town. In both cases, the apparent magic realism is quickly deconstructed: the horses had been buried in an underground trench by their owner to hide them from marauding mutineers; the image of the dead wife is revealed to be a self-portrait—part of a mural she painted on a friend’s home. Magic, however, is only one of many things that will prove chimeric in Nadeem Aslam’s fourth novel.
The book begins with Jeo, a medical student, and his foster brother Mikal going off to Afghanistan where they hope to aid their wounded countrymen. Instead, they are quickly sold to a Taliban warlord who forces them to take arms against the Americans. During an attack on the warlord’s fort, Jeo is killed, and Mikal, believed to be an agent of either the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, is imprisoned by the Americans. When he’s eventually released, Mikal, assuming his escorts intend to assassinate him, grabs one of their guns and kills them.
The novel’s nucleus, and its most tragic character, is Jeo’s father Rohan, a deeply pious Muslim who lives on the grounds of the school he once ran—now taken over by fundamentalists—in a town in Pakistan’s Punjab. Rohan remains tormented by his wife Sofia’s repudiation of their faith, and though she died 20 years ago, he still prays daily for her soul. Rohan’s lush garden is his solace, but that too is disappearing; when Jeo died Rohan started going blind.
Mikal, our indomitable hero, is a MacGyver-level handyman and constellations-expert, but his real stock-in-trade is loyalty. When he discovers that his true love, Naheed, has been chosen to marry Jeo, he immediately abandons the relationship. Later, unaware of Jeo’s death, Mikal endures waterboarding and other tortures in the hopes of determining his brother’s whereabouts. Less plausibly, he jeopardizes his reunion with Naheed, now under heavy pressure to marry her mother’s repulsive landlord, by agreeing to a risky trip back into Afghanistan out of loyalty to his ex-prison mate, Akbar.
Though religion is everywhere in the novel, “force for good” is not a phrase that fits. Instead, it’s nature that seems to possess redemptive, spiritual qualities. Despite various ongoing crises, Aslam’s characters often take the time, literally, to sniff the flowers. These incantatory, pastoral bursts, can, however, butt jarringly against the novel’s plot-advancing prose, which has a regrettable habit of sliding into the expository—an issue in much of the dialogue as well.
At other times the characters’ dreaminess seems wildly incongruous. Stuck at a roadblock after learning that his school is under siege by armed Muslim extremists, a Christian minister imagines, of all things: “rain falling on the frangipani tree that Sofia had sent to be planted outside his office, the flower large and beautiful like mysteries in a tale.” Treating coincidence as if it were an acceptable plot device is another of Aslam’s bad habits. When Mikal returns to Afghanistan, he encounters, alone the desert, the brother of one of the American soldiers he killed, now on a vigilante mission to find him.
Though Aslam, who was born in Pakistan and moved to England in his teens, is clearly striving—often with success—to show us the intractable cultural complexity of the other side of the looking glass, he’s also not averse to throwing the odd backhanded compliment to the West. Considering the Americans, Akbar muses: “It’s strange how much their government cares if something happens to its people.”
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor