The Golden Legend is Nadeem Aslam’s fifth novel, and a remarkable one. No surprise there; he is a remarkable writer, born in Pakistan and brought up in Yorkshire after his father, a communist and poet, was obliged to leave his native country some 40 years ago after the military dictator General Zia imposed a hardline, more severely Islamic regime, supported (predictably) by the USA in the years of the Cold War, when anti-communism made Washington suspicious of liberalism and tender towards dictators.
Aslam wrote his first novel in Urdu but now writes in English. Pakistan, that beautiful, turbulent, confused nation, remains his subject. Founded as a Muslim state when British India was partitioned, it remains a divided country where Islam ranges from the increasingly intolerant and narrow to the relaxed and generous; it is a country rich in minorities, Christians and secular liberals among them. So, amidst the beauty and intelligence, there is fanaticism and cruelty. It is a state where you may be sentenced to death for blasphemy, where murder is frequent, and often the work of the Military Intelligence forces. Aslam recreates the atmosphere brilliantly, beguilingly and alarmingly.
It begins with a death. Massud, a lover of beauty and a distinguished architect, is shot one morning, caught in the crossfire provoked by an altercation. The killer is an American, probably a spy, but claimed as a diplomat by Washington. Massud’s wife, Narghis, is approached and threatened by an officer of the Military Intelligence who orders her to go to court and declare that she pardons the killer – who will then be set free, as the relationship between the Pakistan Military Intelligence and the CIA requires he should be.
Narghis refuses and the officer beats her up; he also destroys a beautiful book written by Massud’s father, a book which traces the influence of the world’s civilizations on each other; not an argument welcome in Pakistan today.
Narghis has a secret. As a young girl she was reared as a Christian. Massud was liberal and tolerant – they have all but adopted (and paid for the education of) a Christian girl called Helen, whose mother was murdered by a thug, now released from prison after a year as a reward for having memorised the whole of the Koran. Helen, along with a Kashmiri friend, Imran, with whom she is falling perhaps perilously but yet rewardingly in love, joins Narghis as the heroine of the novel.
Strange things are happening in the city on the Great Trunk Road. For weeks some mysterious person has been broadcasting people’s secrets from the minarets of the mosques. Narghis, who had never told Massud about her Christian childhood, is afraid that her secret will be one of those revealed. Would her impersonation of a Muslim be seen as blasphemous?
The plot is involved, notably well-managed, and the story is gripping. It is beautifully written and the luminosity of the writing renders the cruelty and intolerance of the society and regime Aslam depicts all the more horrible. This is not a novel to reconcile you to either politics or religion; both as presented here are cruel and disturbing. They are also absurd manifestations of power and moral corruption. To say that Aslam contrasts them with the redeeming influence of love, beauty, scholarship and art might make the novel seem sentimental. But in literature it all depends on how things are done, on how ideas are expressed.
His Pakistan may seem a frightening and appalling country, and indeed it is so at times and in some ways, but it is also one of abundant vitality, where hope of a better future remains alive.
Searching for a comparison, a measure by which to praise this utterly engrossing novel, I found myself recalling the greatest English novel set in India – Kipling’s Kim. Kipling of course was more in tune with Muslims than with Hindus, and would, I suspect, have been fascinated by the multifarious nature of Pakistan today. Like Aslam, he would have been dismayed by the cruelty and intolerance, yet would have responded to the beauty and vitality – as Aslam does.