At the beginning of Nadeem Aslam’s new novel, someone reveals the secrets of the town’s residents before dawn on the loudspeakers. No one knows who it is, but the secret vices and corruption of the citizens are announced one by one, day after day. It is a peculiar and shameful intrusion. “The city of Zamana was experiencing a strange new dread.”
Aslam’s fiction is about the human impulse to create — and how it repeatedly comes up against the equally human tendency to restrict, maim, and destroy.
The Golden Legend , his fifth novel, is set in the fictional town of Zamana in Pakistan, a setting to which he returns after his 1993 debut, Season of the Rainbirds . This new novel explores the relationship between architecture and human nature in a tragic, brutalised landscape.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once described architecture as “frozen music”; Constantin Brancusi described it as “inhabited sculpture”. Regarding architecture as inhabited stories, Aslam’s novel asks, whose stories are these? What drives human beings to create beautiful buildings? In turn, how are people’s lives shaped by the spaces in which they live? Can beautiful spaces heal the divides of painful history?
The novel opens in a vast room in what was once a paper factory and is now the home of an architect couple. The room is filled with books as well as other beautiful and fascinating things, such as a metal helmet for a stallion from the Crusades, and a vase of dried branches from apple trees planted by Count Tolstoy with his own hands. To think of apple trees planted by Tolstoy and still living! These are among the moments of shining beauty that make a Nadeem Aslam novel what it is.
Inside this library of strange things are two smaller ‘buildings’: architectural models of two celebrated monuments, the Great Mosque in Cordoba and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. These are placed in the centre of the room, functioning as shelters to work in during the winter months, and winched up by a system of pulleys and levers for the rest of the year when they are not required. When the novel opens, it is spring, and the architectural models are being winched up as a seven-year-old girl looks on, wide-eyed. As she gazes up, she imagines moths fluttering inside the minarets “like trapped prayers”.
“Architecture is the reaching out for the truth,” remarked Louis Kahn. Thus, Aslam’s narrative suggests that there is a kind of violence even in the imposition of an alien geography upon a place: for example, when under colonial rule, in the market area of the town, the British rulers had laid out the eight bazaars to represent the spokes of the Union Jack. It is similarly an act of hostility to close up the spaces in which people can interact naturally, such as in the neighbourhood of Badami Bagh where the minority community lives, and where most lanes leading to their residences have been blocked.
Indeed, Badami Bagh itself is a great symbol of the beauty in the midst of devastation that is Aslam’s constant theme. In this once glorious two hundred-year-old almond orchard, mutineers once hid among the trees to plan the 1857 rebellion; after the failure of that uprising, they were hanged by the British from the branches of those very trees. And now, unable to escape the onslaught of urban demand, the orchard has been reduced to a single surviving almond tree inhabited by the ghost of a hanged mutineer, who now wanders about the orchard asking people to untie the noose from his neck.
“They were beautiful — with their families of domes, semi-domes, and minarets.” Aslam constructs his narrative like a family of stories and semi-stories, the different plot threads like passages running through the building that bring characters face-to-face with each other and with their past. In Zamana, on the morning when the novel opens, a human chain gathers, a mile long, to transfer sacred books from an ancient library to a new location. Elsewhere, a gentle, caring, elderly man tends to a museum of glass flowers, and says he can’t leave the country until he has done all he personally can to make things better. It is the kind of museum and he is the kind of character that one might only encounter in a Nadeem Aslam novel.
The novel is also about forgiveness. A widow is asked — ordered, actually — to forgive her husband’s killer. Almost immediately, another character asks her not to forgive the killer. But what does it actually mean to forgive someone, asks the novel. Who actually has the right to forgive a wrong? What does it mean to be merciful?
In a landscape filled with pain and violence, there is resistance in the act of restoring, preserving and repairing damaged objects. A character reflects on the Japanese art of kintsugi , of repairing broken objects with gold, thus revealing the care with which the object has been put together again, making it more beautiful than before. If one character perfunctorily rips up the pages of a cherished book with a knife, others spend hours and days to stitch the book back into a whole, page by laborious page, with golden thread, in an act of resistance and devotion.
Metaphor is resistance
If the novel lacks nuance in its political vision — for all systems are not equally flawed, cynical and oppressive — the achingly lovely prose makes up for it. Metaphor is the gold thread that holds the novel together. Metaphor, in Aslam’s prose, is resistance: it fights against the literal, reductive, single meaning that traps individuals into categories and labels. For the characters, resistance lies in crossing artificial boundaries and finding new ways to get into forbidden territory. One character changes her name and identity; another crosses a forbidden boundary to meet the woman he loves. A rickshaw driver criss-crosses the lanes of the town, becoming a metaphor for the fragile and perilous journey of the individual through a desolate landscape. The Grand Trunk Road itself is present in the novel both literally and as a symbol of something that brings human beings together — “one of the planet’s great sinews”.
Places, too, are no one thing, but subject to change. The Hagia Sophia had earlier been a cathedral; the novel mentions the legend that, when the invaders entered, “the priests had taken the sacred vessels and disappeared into the building’s eastern wall, through which it was said they would return one day to complete the divine service.”
Every human space, including the human heart, is a palimpsest, suggests the novel. In the ultimate act of transgression, a character crosses the boundary between life and death. Indeed, the narrative is bookended by two ghostly figures — the hanged mutineer and a new ghost.
As always, in Aslam’s redemptive vision, there is hope in human love and friendship. Right from the epigraph from Pushkin, which describes the multi-coloured flowers growing on the graves of plague victims, to the final pages of the novel where a ghost wanders, gazing upon its loved ones, there is hope in the very heart of despair.
Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta is in the IAS, currently based in Bengaluru.