THE WASTED VIGIL by Nadeem Aslam (Knopf), 320 pages, $26.44 cloth. Rating: NNNN
In Nadeem Aslam's latest novel, The Wasted Vigil, Lara, a young Russian woman, searches war-torn Afghanistan for her brother Benedikt, a soldier who defected from the Soviet army. Beaten by a boy with a tire iron for falling asleep by the road with her feet toward Mecca, she is sent to the house of Marcus Caldwell, an elderly British doctor and convert to Islam who has lost his wife to the Taliban and his daughter to the brutal Soviet invasion.
Marcus's dilapidated mansion serves as a symbol of Afghanistan, the storehouse of an ancient culture literally turned upside down: its library has been nailed to the ceiling to save books from being burned by the Taliban, its walls smeared with mud to preserve its 19th-century Persian murals from being defiled.
Aslam's cast of characters are ensnared in a tangle of familial, religious and political allegiances.
Lara, whose brother may have known (and raped) Marcus's missing daughter, Zameen, is soon joined by David, a former CIA officer and gem merchant who knew and loved Zameen during the invasion. Casa, a young fanatic, arrives at the house and meets Dunia, a teacher whose school has been suicide-bombed by his associates.
When these members of enemy camps pair off, human passion muddies the boundaries drawn by war, atrocities and fanaticism.
Aslam's tendency toward hallucinatory imagery and perfumed rhetorical excess actually serves a singular purpose. The utter brutality of Taliban rule and the crucible of constant warfare become all the more real when when they rub up against the sensuous, dreamlike fragments of classical Persian culture and the all too human yearnings of its broken people.
Aslam reads tonight (Thursday, October 23), 8 pm, at Fleck Dance Theatre, and sits on the Answering The Call: Beginning A Narrative Journey round table tomorrow (Friday, October 24), 8 pm, at the Studio Theatre.