Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Blind Man's Garden by Nadeem Aslam, reviewed by Karen MacDougall

The Blind Man’s Garden, Knopf (2013), 371 pages, Kindle $13.99, paperback $14.40, Amazon here.

Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden is a novel that makes a commendable attempt to provide the Western World with insight into events that occurred in Pakistan and Afghanistan right after the 9/11 terror attacks in the US. 

With beautiful, highly descriptive prose, Aslam gives us a peek into what everyday life was like for the people of Pakistan at this time through the story of Rohan, a blind retired headmaster whose school has been taken over by militant fundamentalists. 

The book opens with Rohan accompanying his son Jeo, a third year medical student, and his best friend, Mikal – who emerges as the novel’s central character – from their small town Heer to Peshawar, a border town where hundreds of wounded from the Afghan war are treated. To Rohan’s surprise Jeo and Mikal actually cross over into Afghanistan, so that Jeo can treat casualties on the front lines. 

Jeo’s friend Mikal is captured by tribal warlords, handed over to the US military, then struggles to find his way back to the family to tell them what has happened to Jeo.

Holding no punches, Aslam gives an account of just how much the lives of the Pakistani people were affected by the events that took place on that September day, reminding us of the global impact of that tragedy, more strongly felt in that region and in more horrific ways than most of us in the West can imagine. And, sadly, all in the name of religion.

Nadeem Aslam
An informative and at times emotional read, I appreciated Aslam’s objectivity and the way he gives a historical backdrop to 9/11.  His main characters are moderate, open minded Pakistanis, accused by their more religiously zealous “brothers” of not being Islamic enough.

The different story lines are compelling and there was enough tension in each to keep me turning the pages.

This book was easily 4 out of 5 for me right up until about the last fifth, when Mikal’s actions take an incomprehensible turn. No sooner does he find his way out of the wilderness and back to the bosom of his family, who are in dire need of his protection, than he decides to abandon them to fulfill what I can only assume he sees as a life debt, agreeing to walk back into a situation that can only be likened to a pit full of scorpions and snakes, knowing full well the dangers.

Added to this was a dichotomy to Mikal’s character. At times he seems full of street smarts, able to navigate around a tense situation, while at others, he seemed incredibly naive, almost willfully placing himself in needless danger. As such, the tension becomes more of an irritant than a tingling excitement.

Though Aslam tries to couch Mikal’s behavior with high-minded philosophies of civility, magnanimity and reparation, it was a hard sell for me, perhaps not believing that enough time had passed for him to reach a place of forgiveness and understanding. Perhaps a quote from a character towards the end of the novel best sums up my inability to comprehend Mikal’s choices: “The Westerners are unknowable to us. The divide is too great, too final.”

In reverse, I don’t understand what it means to be Muslim, where the needs of the individual are suppressed in the name of a cause, in direct contrast to Western thinking where a person’s instinct for self-preservation is sometimes taken to ridiculous extremes.

The novel ended on a flat note of ambiguity, with enough unsaid to be another book in its own right. In summary, The Blind Man’s Garden is a compelling read for anyone who likes to understand both sides of any situation.

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Karen MacDougall is a writer of historical fiction, with one novel completed and a second which is currently a work in progress. She has seen her work grow by leaps and bounds after networking made her aware of Brian’s classes and workshops. 

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