We tend to see only the biggest battlegrounds in what some call a war between Muslim extremism and the West. We see terrorist attacks and suicide bombs and we see Western armies in the Middle East. But while bloody conflicts are playing out on battlefields (and on city streets and in subways), these two supposedly warring peoples are living side by side in our cities. Some will suggest that we are living in a time of great conflict, but we are also living in a time of assimilation, and Nadeem Aslam's novel, Maps for Lost Lovers, is about that assimilation.
As Sam wrote yesterday, the family at the center of the novel has settled in a Pakistani community in an unnamed English town. Aslam describes how the members of this community have struggled to recreate a sense of their homeland in the unremitting greyness of England:
As in Lahore, a road in this town is named after Goethe. There is a Park Street here as in Calcutta, a Malabar Hill as in Bombay, and a Naag Tolla as in Dhaka. Because it was difficult to pronounce the English names, the men who arrived in this town in the 1950s had rechristened everything that came before them.
Aslam weaves, with his dense descriptions, a lush portrait of this community. For the first generation of immigrants, the illusion that they have created is a convincing enough backdrop to continue with their old traditions and religious practices, including the suspected honor killing that is at the center of the book. The struggle to stay the same in an entirely new and hostile place is embodied in the family's matriarch, Kaukab.
Aslam's greatest feat is his ability to embody the struggle of a whole generation of people in Kaukab. She is a proponent of ugly things about Islam, including ideas that seem to lead inexorably to violence against women. As Kaukab's children, a generation removed from the homeland, become assimilated into Western culture, it causes great suffering for Kaukab. And though Kaukab says and does many hateful things in the name of her religion, Aslam is able to make her sympathetic to the reader. Kaukab wants desperately to understand why the Western world in which she must live feels so wrong to her, but, blinded by her beliefs, she is not capable of transformation. In Kaukab, Aslam has showed us the face of intolerance. She isn't a bomber or a politician; she is a little old lady who loves her family and likes to cook and dreams fragrant dreams about the land where she grew up.
I share Sam's reservations about Aslam's impenetrable metaphors and about an ending that is perhaps unnecessarily obscure, but, like Sam, I found the book to be quite rewarding. Though Aslam is writing about a community that is insular in the extreme, his tragedy of assimilation feels universal.