Two things written by the English poet Wilfred Owen kept cropping up in my mind as I read Nadeem Aslam’s remarkable new novel, The Blind Man’s Garden. They embrace this taut, intricate narrative like a double helix. The first is what is widely regarded as Owen’s aesthetic: “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry lies in the pity.” The second is the following section from his poem, Strange Meeting: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend./I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned/Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed./I parried; but my hands were loath and cold./Let us sleep now.”
The Blind Man’s Garden is set in the days following the September 11 attacks with the Americans having invaded Afghanistan. Aslam focuses on the havoc that invasion causes, including collateral damage across the Afghan border in Pakistan: in doing so, he shows up how, amid the brutality and bloodshed, the rapaciousness and bestiality, the overwhelmingly poignant thing is the pity of war, the numbing senselessness of it.
Two brothers leave their home in a fictitious town in Pakistan in an attempt to go to Afghanistan and help wounded civilians. But their good intentions flounder as they are kidnapped and thrust into the heart of the conflict. Only one of them is able to return home, and he, too, returns with a price on his head, and in a state unrecognizable from the one in which he had left.
Aslam’s huge success lies in creating characters who have positions of polarity (devout/atheist; liberal/fundamentalist; captor/captive; ) and reveal that in reality they are closer to each other than they would imagine. This sense of nuance, of blurring of accepted borders of thinking and being, is one of the great achievements of this novel. Added to that is Aslam’s eye for arresting images, and his loving, luminous delineation of the natural world.
Vivid, haunting and riveting, The Blind Man’s Garden is Aslam’s best work to date.
Here is a video of the author introducing his novel: