The easy choice would be to jump right in and ask novelist Nadeem Aslam what his thoughts are on the recent bombings in London. After all, his critically acclaimed novel Maps for Lost Lovers was a lyrical examination of the very immigrant communities in the North of England from which the alleged bombers came. British born, as they were, but born into a very different Britain from that portrayed daily on our television screens.
But the easy choice won’t necessarily do justice to the work at hand, as Aslam would testify, having spent the best part of ten years working on Maps for Lost Lovers, his second novel. With a dedication/obsession, Aslam crafted his novel, creating for example lengthy biographies, for his own use, of all the main characters, and reading the novel into a dictaphone to ensure that it sounded right (“the writing was so rich in places, so hesitant in others, that I was worried it would not read properly”). It should come as no surprise then, that James Joyce is a strong influence for Aslam, with specific mentions in Maps for Lost Lovers, and his debut novel Season of the Rainbirds. “No novelist can escape Joyce, or should wish to. I think of him almost daily – the kidney for breakfast; the stick thrown on wet sand where it lands upright; Bloom waiting before breaking wind outdoors so that it is covered by a greater noise in the traffic. How beautifully The Dead takes seemingly minor details of everyday life and turn them into a howl about the despair of being alive.”
Small details in Maps for Lost Lovers have violent consequences, such as a woman being seen in the company of the wrong man, or the criticism of elements within the community. There are no terrorist bombs, nor Al-Qaeda links in Aslam’s novel. Nothing as sensational, but rather a mosaic of violence on a smaller, local level, of intimidation, and murder. The Pakistani community in the novel live in a nameless, shapeless place, at once in England and yet not there. It’s a bleak picture, particularly in the current climate. There is no integration in the novel, England, as it were, is absent. “England is not absent from my novel – only the WHITE England is absent,” Aslam corrects, carefully. “I did not want to give the impression – which most novels about immigration give – that interaction with the often-hostile whites was all there was to an immigrant’s life. That we spend our days and nights worrying about what the whites think of us. We do sometimes – but 99% of the times we are not Pakistanis: we are just human beings who have brothers and sisters and lovers and parents and jobs and children. I wanted to concentrate on that.”
“Some of the decisions I made were not political or cultural – they were artistic: I don’t give the location or name of the town because I wanted the reader to be as confused about his surroundings as my characters – immigrants to this alien place – were,” he explains, by inference admitting that many of the choices he made in the novel also came from a political and cultural choice. But then the mix of politics and art for Aslam seems natural: “Coming from the culture and country I come from – Pakistan – I was always aware of the potential for truth-telling that existed in any form of artwork – painting, music, the written word, cinema. In any of these art forms you could do things that – because they told the truth about existence – could offend the powerful who had heavy investments in lies. In a society which had very rigid rules about every aspect of life, to make the smallest movement was to risk offending those in power. This situation is more or less the same there in Pakistan still and within Pakistani ghettos in the Western world. The so-called leaders and self-proclaimed spokesmen of these communities are keen to take offence. They burn books, get plays cancelled, picket outside cinemas, disrupt performances by stand-up comedians.”
Religions, and indeed cultures (the use of the plural is intended) reserve their greatest wrath for apostates, or those who dare to criticise from within. With the example of Salman Rushdie in the past, and with heightened sensibilities currently due to the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’, it must have crossed the Pakistani born author’s mind that there were dangers involved in having written a book that stridently, and unapologetically criticises elements of Islam. “There is nothing in my novels that isn’t being discussed on a daily basis in the newspapers published in Pakistan and in the rest of the Muslim world, – he responds, – I just wanted to add my voice to those that were already being raised.”