My nomination, Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers, is the story of a year in the life of a Pakistani community located in an unnamed English city. At the center are two couples: Shamas and Kaukab, the novel’s protagonists, and Shamas’s brother Jugnu and his lover Chanda. Before the events of the novel take place, Jugnu and Chanda, who have been living together outside of wedlock, have disappeared. Chanda’s brothers are suspected of having committed an honor killing, and are arrested for murder near the beginning of the novel.
It brings to life the whole diasporic community in the neighborhood referred to as Dasht-e-Tanhaii (the Wilderness of Solitude or the Desert of Loneliness) by its inhabitants, but Maps focuses on the interior lives of Shamas and Kaukab. Shamas, whose family’s spiritual history is scrambled (the story of his father, with whom the ambiguity originates, is breathtaking), is a cosmopolitan and a skeptic, but at the same time an important and respected leader within his community of emigrants. He’s also a devoted husband to the pious Kaukab, despite her faith to Islam and her bitter resistance to the very forces of Westernization and secularization that Shamas is so open to and enriched by.
To Aslam, and probably to most of his English and American readers, the culturally hybrid Shamas is the more accessible of these characters, the one easiest to identify with. (The couple’s children, who are thoroughly Westernized, are crucial but minor characters.) But one of the eye-opening things about the novel is that Shamas is not the more sympathetic or the more compelling. While it’s true that he has a broader range of experience and a more open mind, the evidence of my gut tells me that Kaukab is the richer and more engaging character here—the emotional hook of the novel, however much a reader like me may feel a kind of solidarity with and admiration for Shamas’s receptive stance to the world in all its variety.
In many ways, Dasht-e-Tanhaii seems to have been plucked whole from Pakistan and plunked down on English soil. The community is remarkably self-sufficient, surprisingly successful at warding off incursions of the culture that surrounds it. Kaukab embodies this insularity, which in Aslam’s humane rendering is psychologically intricate. Kaukab takes the claims of the outside culture on her husband and children as a personal affront; at the same time, being fiercely proud of the faith, culture, and people she represents, she is terrified of appearing parochial or unrefined to the few whites she encounters.
Aslam’s depiction of her interior life gives the reader access to that pride. Kaukab has some wretched ideas and some deplorable moments when she acts on them, for instance when she beats her daughter with shocking brutality in one indelible scene. But—and I found this hugely surprising and hugely interesting—some of the most affecting moments in the novel for me, moments that struck me like a bolt, were when other characters paid small acts of kindness to Kaukab, a woman stranded in a sea of misunderstanding, trying to reconcile a mother’s utter love with a good Muslim’s utter faith, and experiencing her children’s drifting from Islamic articles of faith and Pakistani social mores as personal rejection.
Aslam is great at unearthing rich psychologies like Kaukab’s in an emotionally potent way; he’s great at interiors. But that’s a bit misleading, since another distinction of his novel is the way it reflexively looks outward to see in: a great deal of what we know about the characters is divined through detailed representations of the world as they see it. The thickly descriptive style through which Aslam achieves this will, I imagine, prove overly rich for some readers. Seven metaphors and similes on the first page alone sounds alarming, doesn’t it? But—apart from the fact that many of them are stunning—metaphoric language is more than a vehicle here, and certainly more than just ornament. It’s close to being a provisional philosophy.
The metaphors and similies that carpet Aslam’s prose have individual beauty and collective significance, evoking a world in which hardly anything isn’t strikingly like something else—a world of underlying connectedness. Juxtaposed with the divisions and strife that characterize the social world the novel depicts, this connectedness comes to seem a necessity, and those who attend to it—Shamas and Kaukab included, the murderers not—are small heroes doing everyday justice to both the variety of the world and its unity.
So it’s striking that the long chapter toward the end of the book that unfolds the mystery of Jugnu and Chanda’s disappearance, giving us a moment-by-moment account of their murders, is comparatively devoid of the metaphoric language that dominates the rest of the book. This relatively reportorial account is the one sustained section of Aslam’s novel to step outside the master idiom of always analogizing. As a result, reading this stark chapter feels like stepping into a forest defoliated.
Maps for Lost Lovers is a book that not only rewards slowness but pretty much disallows haste, which classes it with writers, like Henry James and Shirley Hazzard, who top my personal pantheon. Ultimately Aslam caught me up in his characters’ plights and the whole transplanted world of Dasht-e-Tanhaii. But I initially became attached to the book for its cabinet-of-wonders vision of the world—the metaphors that crowd the pages and run from lush to bracing, hotly exuberant to coolly precise. It feels a bit like a return to a child’s-eye view. In fact, at one point Shamas muses that “the eye that in the adult sees the rough material for metaphors and similes all around it, comparing one thing with another, that eye was already half open in the child.” Aslam's book implicitly suggests that these acts of likening things, even on the tiniest scale, are humanizing.
If you’d like to participate in a discussion of Maps for Lost Lovers, we’ll be conducting one in this space beginning October 24th.