The Wasted Vigil, Nadeem Aslam

wasted vigilI’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.

quote 1 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.

quote 2The 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.




7 thoughts on “The Wasted Vigil, Nadeem Aslam

  1. Maps for Lost Lovers has stuck with me in parts and bits. It wasn’t lighthearted reading, but it was worth it. For someone who likes to have some understanding for people. I will read this too. I’ve had an interest in Afghanistan for a long time, starting back when we in America wanted that population to beat the Russians. It was somewhat perplexing when we decided to go in there. Part of the reason the Russians gave up was the simple difficulty of the terrain. Why would we want to put our young people through that? And why anyway, would Bush want us to go there? We hadn’t talked like the people were bad. Word IS, we are going to have to come to terms with Saudi Arabia (from whence comes the ideology). But all that is probably less interesting than individuals.

    1. Maps For Lost Lovers is the only book of Aslam’s that I haven’t read, but it’s one on my wishlist.
      I loved The Wasted Vigil and The Blindman’s Garden both of which had similar settings and covered similar themes. I found his first book Season of the Rainbirds less compelling.

      I’ve recently had some interest in Afghanistan, partly from Aslam’s books, but also because of the work of an artist I like (Ben Quilty) who spent a short time with Australian troops in Afghanistan as an official war artist. He did a series of paintings afterwards that I’ve been to see twice at the Australian War Memorial.

      I recall hearing someone (I think it was Quilty) saying that he was warned not to enter the American section of the military base he visited because it was too dangerous – not from any Taliban or Al Qaeda threat, but from gangs formed by American servicemen. It seems that even within the US military, there are violent sub-cultures.

  2. That’s really disturbing. I have a son who recently joined the army reserves (planning to go to college first and then possibly go active for a while and maybe work in the Pentagon. He has a friend who joined the national guard (who suggested he should join — while now it seems more like he should have talked her out of joining). She was too trusting in a sense that the recruiters cared about her. When she said she wanted to learn mechanics, they put her in the mechanics group. Turns out this is the lowest group of ne’r-do-wells. They don’t do (or haven’t been doing) anything mechanical and are really crude (even “joking” about sexual assault). Please pray as she is doing what she can to be reassigned (but no one so far, in authority, has acted like it’s a priority). She qualified in her testing for high-level placement. They may think that if she can stick to it she can rise in the ranks (or not, they might just not care). But she’s very unhappy (and very conscientious, so she goes).

  3. Oh, I forgot to mention… she says they are quick to be deployed and brag about how much killing they’ve done. Not sure how that’s mechanics.

    Her first choice was something in linguistics, but they said nothing is available “right now.” I think they’re not bothering about communication.

    1. As someone seeing America from the outside, the bragging about killing doesn’t come as a surprise. That is the kind of image America projects to those of us “outside”.

      We see the American gun culture and constant reports of shootings within your borders. And that same “In Guns We Trust” image carries across to what we see of America’s military record. Only an hour or so ago I saw a news report of how Australian jets are being used to attack some of the most delicate and difficult IS targets in Iraq – because they have such a good reputation for precision and the ability to avoid civilian casualties. I remember when the Australian airforce was first deployed against IS they often turned back from a mission because to carry it out would risk civilian deaths.
      At the same time American air attacks continued, seemingly without restraint.

  4. And then we have American pro-war people (politicians and quasi-christian voters) complaining that “no one cares” (by which they mean to get out there and kill some more).

    I’ve been looking up stories about women (as well as trying to ascertain what language is relevant). I don’t know why the second video (third link) won’t play for me.

  5. I have to say, it is mistaken to compare Delta 93 to suicide bombers.
    [I bought the book about eight hours ago, and am listening to it before I read it too.]

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