The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. The reviews are written by Betsy Tobin, author of five novels and joint founder of [email protected] – an independent bookshop just up the road from our head office, situated in leafy Highbury. Though the book club exists in a purely digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.*
In the opening pages of The Golden Legend, a mysterious presence has gripped the fictional city of Zamana: someone is slipping into the mosques at night and revealing the shameful secrets of its citizenry over the minaret’s loudspeakers. Is it the voice of Allah? Or the work of overzealous clerics? And if so, why are the latter sometimes implicated in their own revelations?
Thus begins Nadeem Aslam’s fifth novel, a lyrical, cross-cultural love story set in contemporary Pakistan. It is the story of Nargis and Massud, married architects who form part of the city’s liberal, educated elite. Both are at the peak of successful careers when Massud is killed by a stray bullet fired by an American spy. As Massud lies dying in her arms, Nargis fails to reveal the terrible secret she has harbored throughout their marriage: that she is Christian posing as Muslim in a country where such acts carry the death penalty.
Nargis’ story is counterposed with that of her young Christian servant Helen, whose widowed father enters into a clandestine relationship with the daughter of the local Muslim cleric. When the affair is revealed over the mosque’s loudspeaker, Helen must go on the run with Nargis. They find a safe haven on a remote island where they are joined by a young Kashmiri Muslim called Imran, who is in hiding after deserting a terrorist training cell. For a brief time, the island is an idyll where love blooms.
Asleem’s novels deal with cultures in collision – and the complex lattice of religion, ethnicity, geography, politics and class which undercut each other. Each tribe in this story is both oppressed and oppressor: Pakistan’s Christians suffer appalling discrimination at the hands of Muslims, Kashmiri Muslims are themselves oppressed by Hindus, who in turn were brutally suppressed by the British under colonial occupation. And in the words of one militant terrorist, Muslims across the Western world continue to be treated ‘like scum’.
Aslam tells us that Pakistan means ‘Land of the Pure’. Massud’s library is filled with ancient accounts of travellers carrying objects, words, images and ideas from one place to another. ‘That is how one continent poured itself into another,’ until there was no ‘absolute purity’ anywhere, writes Aslam. Purity is revealed to be not just a myth, but a chimaera, and an undesirable one at that. When the young Imran stumbles onto a snake swallowing its own tail in the grass, the symbolism of a country tearing itself to pieces is made clear. ‘There is no lack of talent in this country,’ Helen tells a friend. ‘All we lack is decent leaders.’
Aslam was born in Pakistan but moved with his family to Britain when he was 14, settling in West Yorkshire. He dropped out of university to write fiction, and has since garnered a clutch of prizes for his four previous books, the best-known of which was Maps For Lost Lovers. If at times the story appears overly schematic, Aslam seems undeterred as a writer. His characters are eloquent mouthpieces for his ideas: that each of us has a duty to rebel, that suffering increases our perception, and that we are not entitled to despair until we have done everything within our power to change things.
Both his message and his narrative are fiercely compelling. The Golden Legend grips from the outset, and Aslam’s prose shimmers with an almost mystical quality. He writes convincingly about love and its ability to transcend all boundaries. In Pakistan, ‘ordinary people wished to be left alone,’ he tells us, ‘finding pockets of love and comfort within the strict laws that governed them.’ The Golden Legend bravely celebrates these pockets with grace, sympathy and immense beauty.
Words by Betsy Tobin
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