By Francine Prose
May 19, 2017
How challenging it can be, these days, to distinguish the dystopian from the naturalistic, to tell the difference between an artist’s darkest imaginings and current events. With its vision of a culture driven mad by technology, the British television series “Black Mirror” resembles 21st-century reality, fancifully tweaked. Mohsin Hamid’s recent novel, “Exit West,” depicts a near future in which the sheer number of people driven from their homes by war has destabilized global civilization. Wallace Shawn’s new play, “Evening at the Talk House,” posits a not-so-distant era in which ordinary citizens facilitate targeted long-distance killings as a way to pay the rent.
Now Nadeem Aslam’s powerful and engrossing fifth novel, “The Golden Legend,” introduces us to a world that may at first seem to be a dire and distorted version of our own. In the city Aslam calls Zamana, the rule of law is a distant memory and the social order has thoroughly deteriorated. Aslam’s characters must struggle to survive in a society ruled by mob violence, sectarianism and intolerance, presided over by fanatical despots. Danger lurks everywhere: in the households and neighborhoods controlled by religious extremists and in the sky above, where drones take aim at civilians selected for execution by the American military. This apparent dystopia is, in fact, all too real. The nightmare Aslam so forcefully describes is, he suggests, a portrait of the most turbulent and painful aspects of everyday life in contemporary urban Pakistan.
As the novel opens, books are being transferred from an older library to a new structure that Massud and Nargis — a middle-aged married couple, both celebrated architects — have designed. Because the Islamic texts “contained the names of Allah and Muhammad somewhere, it had been decided that they should be taken from one building to the other by hand. In a truck or cart the risk was too great of something coming into contact with uncleanliness. Nargis and Massud would be walking to the nearby Grand Trunk Road to be part of a human chain, and the books would travel a mile-long succession of hands.” Among the treasures passed in this manner is a ninth-century Abbasid Quran, soon “followed by a book of Mughal paintings of which Rembrandt had made copies in 17th-century Holland.”
As the “human chain” performs its reverential ritual, two young men on a motorcycle attack a car that has stopped nearby. Riding in the car is an American, who promptly whips out his gun and fires blindly into the crowd. In the ensuing chaos, Massud is shot and killed. Within days, the grieving widow is visited by a mysterious and clearly sinister “soldier-spy” who informs her that, as a way to help calm the volatile, anti-American mood of the local population, she must declare in court that she has forgiven her husband’s murderer. When Nargis hesitates, her visitor makes it clear that unless she complies she will be made to suffer.
In fact, she is already suffering, as is nearly everyone in the novel. All the principal characters have lost loved ones to government, military or sectarian violence. A sister is raped by the military police and later commits suicide. A drone kills a group of men in Waziristan. The disfigured corpse of a journalist who reports on the attack is discovered in a sewer. Damaging secrets are being broadcast from the minaret of a local mosque, accusations that can prove fatal in a city in which blasphemy has become a capital crime.
Unsurprisingly, this violence begets more violence. We come to feel immense compassion for a young man named Imran who has been radicalized (and found his way to a terrorist training camp) after his father and older brother were killed by Indian soldiers because they had agitated for Kashmiri independence. And our sympathy for Imran grows as he realizes that he is incapable of the brutal acts he has been ordered to commit.
Fortunately, “The Golden Legend” is far more than the sum of the horrors it contains. Aslam, whose previous books include “The Blind Man’s Garden,” writes with great sensitivity and depth about the ways human beings behave under almost unimaginable pressure. He taps into a vein of something like magic realism to add a layer of symbolism to this otherwise realistic fiction: We are persuaded that Nargis should attempt to repair a shredded book with golden thread, though literal-minded readers may find themselves thinking that double-sided tape would have done the job more effectively.
As the violence escalates, the central characters become hunted fugitives, refugees in their own city. We learn their closely guarded secrets, and we come to share their terror of the probable consequences should those secrets be revealed. We read with increasing anxiety and in the growing hope that these heroic men and women — Christian and Muslim, from a wide range of backgrounds — will somehow triumph.
Despite the misery and cruelty it depicts, “The Golden Legend” is a heartening book, largely because of Aslam’s faith in the integrity and courage of his main characters and, one supposes, of real people like them. In the second half of the novel, Nargis and her companions find refuge on an island where she and Massud had built a mosque, a long-abandoned sanctuary intended to be used by all four sects of Islam. The blessed respite Nargis and the others discover, even if it may only be temporary, seems less like a symbolic plot turn than the summation of an argument: Guided by our better instincts and our common humanity, we may still find a way to live in peace.
Francine Prose’s most recent novel is “Mister Monkey.”