I’m writing this before I’ve finished the book, because Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil is book that I don’t want to end. I want to write something about it now before I face the disappointment of reaching the last page.
There have been books I’ve read recently that I haven’t wanted to put down, that I read at every opportunity until I finished them. This one is different. It isn’t a gripping page-turner to be consumed like fast food, it’s something I want to savour – and enjoy for as long as possible.
Two years ago my wife took me to lunch on my birthday. We ate at a cafe attached to a commercial art gallery. Both of us ordered vegetable lasagne, and were initially disappointed when the meal was served. It seemed tiny in comparison to our expectations – and apart from a small quenelle of pesto on top, a small rectangle of lasagne was all that was on the plate. There wasn’t even a token garnish of lettuce leaves.
But as soon as we had the first taste, all disappointment vanished. Every mouthful was rich with the flavours of roasted capsicum, eggplant, zucchini and sun dried tomato, with an occasional burst of pesto…
…but this is not about food. I mentioned that because reading this book gives me the same kind of rich experience, full of different flavours.
Set in Afghanistan some time after George W Bush made it the focus of his war on terror, the book sweeps across the country’s turbulent history, throughout which local war lords and foreign invaders have preyed on the population. Only the source of oppression or hardship changes: warlords, Russians, The Taliban/Al Qaeda and the United States all have the same kind of effect on the people, creating fear through the threat of death, disability or even hell’s fire.
The main characters in the book are representative of the major powers of recent Afghan history. All of them are brought together for various reasons in the house of an English doctor who moved to Afghanistan decades before after falling in love with (and marrying) an Afghan woman, also a doctor.
There’s a Russian woman searching for information about her brother who went missing after trying to defect while he was part of the Russian occupying force in the 80s; a former CIA agent who was part of US involvement with Afghan warlords opposing the Russian occupiers; and then there’s a young man devoted to the Taliban and Al Qaeda who needs to take refuge (hiding his true identity) when he is mistakenly seen to be a traitor by his fellow terrorists.
This strange collection of “housemates” allows the author to give a vivid and disturbing look at the plight of average Afghan people and the ongoing suffering under several regimes and the various conflicts waged around them.
The author gets into the minds of each character so that the reader can “understand” what motivates them. The young terrorist is a particularly interesting example, as we are shown how his corrupted world view has been shaped by religiously motivated misinformation to create a hatred for anyone not taking the extreme path that has been instilled into him from childhood. (Did you know that the Americans have always hated Islam so much that they even assassinated their Moslem President” Ibraheem Lankan”?)
The book presents many heartbreakingly cruel and violent incidents that the western mind would find hard to understand: especially that such things could be officially sanctioned, or at least tolerated, not only by the Taliban, but also, when politically expedient, by the Russians and Americans. But although very disturbing to the reader, those incidents are not treated graphically or gratuitously. Its not the physical horror being highlighted, but the human cost.
It is a beautifully written, intellectually stimulating book with a compelling story, vivid in imagery and touching multiple senses while stirring the conscience. It ought to be read by every politician potentially in the position of committing troops to conflicts in foreign place.