Behind the poetic title and beautiful cover, Maps for Lost Lovers is a violent and disturbing novel. This is the second novel from Nadeem Aslam, who rose to prominence in 1993 with Season of the Rainbirds. It’s taken Aslam eleven long years to write Maps for Lost Lovers, and, thankfully, it is an accomplished book.
The book is dedicated to Aslam’s father, whom he says “advised me at the outset, all those years ago, to always write about love”, and the book is indeed about love and, sadly, its ramifications. The lost lovers of the title are ostensibly Jugnu and Chanda, a pair who are missing presumed murdered, killed to preserve familial honour as they were living in sin. They figure very little in the overall plot though, floating around like structurally inclined ghosts, allowing for the other characters to ruminate on their disapearance, and, in so doing, on the sacred and the profane.
The action, and, while it is a slow meditative book, there is also enough blood and guts action to qualify for a Tarantino film, takes place in an English village populated by immigrant communities. There is a sense of geographical dislocation from the outset for the reader, as the picture painted by Aslam is that of an England seen through the eyes of the homesick, with vivid colours and insects, foods and names. The town is referred to as Dasht-e-Tanhaii or the desert of loneliness, never by an english name – and English characters are few and far between.
Aslam allegedly spent four of the eleven years he took to write the book drawing up biographies of all the central characters, which, if true, was work well spent as he has breathed life into them in an extraordinary way. Perhaps his greatest achievement, and at the heart of the book, is the figure of Kaukab, a devout Muslim married to Jugnu’s brother Shamas. She has alienated most of her family with her uncompromising view of religion and morality. Through the book she is caught between a hatred of the foreign English culture – because of her poor English she’s afraid to venture out doors – and the dawning realisation that her own culture has condoned/created the murder of her brother in law and his lover. The reader finds onself swinging from hatred of this simple woman, to sympathy, and back to disbelief. No matter how much pain and savagery Aslam confronts this character with, and there’s lots, she is unable to turn away from her religion, her only remaining lifeline in a strange culture.
At a time when more and more people are lazily subscribing to the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory, using it as a handy excuse for nationalism/racism, Maps for Lost Lovers is a gutsy read that reminds us that no culture is simple and homogenuous. In an interview with the London Indpendent, the author placed his finished novel in the context of September 11th :
‘In a way, the book is about September 11,” says Aslam. On visiting Ground Zero, he felt disappointed and angry. “I asked myself whether in my personal life and as a writer I had been rigorous enough to condemn the small scale September 11s that go on every day.” He adds that “Jugnu and Chanda are the September 11 of this book”.
When confronting fundamentalism Aslam uses brutal examples. There are murders, rapes, poisonings, acid throwing, and hypocrisy throughout, with many of the crimes against women being sanctioned by the women of the community, women like Kaukab. No doubt some will criticise Aslam’s portraits, claiming that he’s part of a growing islamophobia, but criticisms of that nature don’t measure up against the text. Indeed, they would come across much like the characters in the novel who seek to protect a paedophile mullah in the local mosque: “They were told that the scandal would give Islam and Pakistan a bad name, that the man would be prevented from doing it again, that if the police got involved and shut down the mosque no one would teach their sons to stay away from the whore-like-white girls, and that their own daughters would run away from home and wouldn’t want to marry their cousins from back home, that the Hindus and the Jews and the Christians would rejoice at seeing Islam being dragged through the mud”[Pg 234]. Aslam has used documented cases throughout, weaving them through his narrative skilfully.
At the same time there is a great reverence for much of his own culture, with motifs from Islamic literature abounding, including the central one of the Moth and the flame, used in relation to the ghostly lovers (Jugnu is an avid entomologist). There are traces of a Thousand and One Nights, and references to both the poetry of Wamaq Saleem, and the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Aslam is a brave novelist, in all senses, and with Maps for Lost Lovers has written a book that moves and provokes in equal measure. One only hopes that it doesn’t take him another eleven years to write his next novel.
Maps for Lost Lovers is published in the UK by Faber&Faber