Nadeem Aslam, Maps for Lost Lovers

I started this blog so I could write something hopefully intelligent about books like Maps for Lost Lovers. This has a good side and a bad side: on the one hand, it is exquisite, a near flawless literary masterpiece in both plot and style, probably the best book I have read for several months. On the other, I am deeply concerned about what effect the story could have on the ordinary reader’s consciousness without a sufficient amount of social context. At the risk of being seen as a grumpy socialist to whom nothing does not contain a political message, I will persevere to write this review with both in mind.

The book takes as its subject the lives of Pakistani immigrants living in a predominantly South Asian neighborhood in London. Of course South Asian immigration to Britain is seen as nothing out of the ordinary these days, but as it accelerated in the sixties, MP Enoch Powell built his career on racist opposition to them, announcing that there would be “rivers of blood” if immigration to Britain continued unabated. The 70s saw the rise of the National Front, a Nazi group with nothing “quasi” about it which sought to physically remove “Paki” immigrants to Britain. While they were countered by the leftist Anti-Nazi League, we have seen more recently the rise of successor groups such as the British National Party, a more “respectable” fascist group which elected a member to the European Parliament last go-round, and has a definite continuity with the NF. While the BNP at least theoretically commits itself to the “peaceful” defense of “indigenous British” interests, groups such as the English Defense League remain a violent threat to South Asian immigrants. Among these, Muslims are the targets of the most violent attacks, but Hindus and Sikhs are certainly not excluded all the time. In the current climate targeting Muslims has become the acceptable prejudice that anti-Semitism once was. There is vast latent and not-so-latent racism toward Muslims in British society. While the British ruling class at least does not break bread with the BNP openly (yet), a more acceptable form of prejudice is manifested in talking of the absolute evil of traditional Islam, which we are told is a dehumanizing, patriarchal system, an incubator for the worst forms of abuse of both women and children, that inevitably leads its women into submissiveness and its men into acts of terror, at home and abroad. Therefore the Pakistani communities in Britain are called on to “reform themselves” immediately or risk state intervention into their lives, imprisonment and possibly deportation. For instance Martin Amis, a British establishment novelist and liberal, has said,

there’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children… They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs – well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people. (Cited in Richard Seymour, The Liberal Defense of Murder. New York: Verso, 2008, p. 16)

The book starts in medias res after the disappearance of Jugnu, a middle-aged lepidopterist, and his much younger girlfriend Chanda. Jugnu and Chanda have been living together without being married. In Pakistani and much of South Asian traditional society sex certainly occurs outside of marriage, but the expectation is that the couple will be decent enough to not flout tradition. When they do, the obligation is on the woman’s family to avenge their honor, typically by killing both her and her lover. Honor killings along with child abuse is the most cited fear “ordinary Britons” have of the alien intruders. Of course it would be useless and very sketchy politically to deny that both of these do happen among Muslim immigrant communities. However we should be wary of anyone putting too much of a point of this. In the first place, it is generally true that immigrant communities tend to be more conservative than the rest of society, as obviously they feel alienated from the “norm” and naturally fall back on their traditions. In many cases, including that of Pakistani immigrants to Britain, I would argue that racism from overtly fascist groups as well as the ruling class itself is mainly to blame for this. Secondly, no evidence I’m aware of has shown that brown men are disproportionally abusing white children, which itself harks back to good old-fashioned racist/sexist tropes that we Americans are very familiar with. In the case of honor killings, we have to remember that honor killing does exist in Western culture, the most popular form being to kill a cheating wife or girlfriend. It is merely not as ritualized as it has been in South Asia.

In itself this is a pretty good topic for a book. Critiquing tradition has always been a function of progressive literature. For example García Márquez’ novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold (which Aslam’s novel references heavily by the way) tells the story of the death of a man for taking the virginity of a woman before she married, when it is not clear that in fact he did. His killers (who are twin brothers of the woman in question and his good friends) try to do everything in their power to be stopped from killing him, but the townspeople either have bystander syndrome or are secretly thrilled to see an honor killing being carried out. It is not the Vicario brothers who kill Santiago Nasar, but the entire town and its traditions.

Honor killing is what, presumably, has happened to Jugnu and Chanda as we begin the book, however the novel expands past that event to take in the lonely existence of Jugnu’s brother Shamas, a communist ex-poet in Urdu and community leader, and his wife Kaukab, who cancels out her husband’s liberality by being an ultra-orthodox Muslim. Their children have reacted, in one case violently, against their traditional upbringing and months pass without Shamas and Kaukab hearing from one of them.

As might be guessed, Shamas and Kaukab have severe problems with each other, but being in a strange country has made them cling together though as the book describes, being in each others’ company is really just being lonely together. While Shamas is an open unbeliever, he still believes enough in not offending his wife so that their children are raised as Muslims. At one point they came close to divorcing after Shamas disrespected Islam, and were separated for 3 years. Here is a scene from Shamas’ memory of their reunion:

One day in the snow-buried March of 1978 he came to leave his wages for her at the little seafood shop where she had started work not long ago; he had made sure that it was not an hour when she would be there – the other shop assistants would pass the money on to her. There was no one at the counter as he sat down to wait in the warmth. Outside, the day was as white as a new page, and there were icicles as long as spears. As he dozed and half-dreamed, the shop turned into a kaleidoscope brightly filled with black-and-cobalt blue fragments whose reflections produced changing patterns on everything, including himself.

The winkles had escaped from their tank.

They were roaming around because the urge was on them: on the coastline a hundred miles away the tide had come in, and all kinds of things were emerging from the sand to feed on what the sea had brought in. The small shelled creatures in the seafood shop had not been away from the beach long enough for their internal rhythms to adjust yet, and had begun to explore, having lain motionless till now as they would on the beach – retreating underground and sealing the entrances to the burrows as though holding their noses shut at the low-tide stink.

The other life on the planet had broken through into the one being lived by the human beings, that immeasurably vast life for which humans were mostly an irrelevance.

Shamas watched the nightsky-blue creatures surrounding him. The tide had come in far away but the sea flooded the interior here. He let the beautiful lapis lazuli creatures leave the tank and make their magnetized way up the walls, explore the windowpanes like a child’s eye losing concentration and beginning to roam the page of the textbook, paint wet trails on the foliage of the plants like a tongue on a lover’s skin, and climb onto the tables to go on slow voyages.

The shop assistant came out from the back and said she hadn’t remembered to secure the lid of the tank in time for the tide.

She gave him a letter which Kaukab had left for him, and, as she hurried from corner to corner to pick up blue shells, she asked Shamas to hand over the money but he said there was no need to because he had decided to go back to Kaukab for good. (146-7)

While rather long, this accomplishes both the things I feel are necessary to excerpt: character development and incredibly beautiful writing. During the book Shamas is in his sixties, and although clearly not “in love” with his wife, he reaches out to her for physical comfort many times throughout the course of the novel. As she believes that it is improper for people to keep “rutting like elephants” into their old age (to which I say, I hear you, sister, though I may disagree in 30-40 years) he is forced to seek other remedies for his sexual frustration. I won’t go into the details, this being the rare book that is so great I would feel really bad for ruining too much of the plot, but I will say that how he tries to solve it turns into one of the best realized romantic relationships I know of in fiction, one that is both incredibly sweet and ends in heartbreak which was always going to happen given the alienated social roles of the society that the lovers were raised in. It is what, furthermore, inevitably leads to Shamas’ tragedy, which I think every reader sees more or less in the first moments he is introduced.

Unsurprisingly Kaukab does not particularly enjoy sex, and rebuffs Shamas’ advances by pretending they are not what they are despite the fact that she believes, as in the Qur’an, that the angels curse wives who refuse sex to their husbands. In one particularly poignant moment she remembers this as Shamas makes another advance on her, despite the fact that her uterus is currently slipping out of her (spaced on the name of the disorder) which makes even walking around incredibly painful. In the end I think Kaukab is possibly the best realized character I have seen in a while, and on her own she would be enough to make the book incredible. She is clearly a horrible person, but one that I not only understand, but sympathize with. In a hostile society, what else could a woman like her do than to cling harder to her tradition? Of course, in the end she is just as tragic as her husband.

The couple’s children, as previously alluded to, appear only occasionally in the novel. When they do, they function as sort of a Greek-style chorus to weigh the flaws of their parents. All of them have clearly broken with their traditional Muslim upbringing, and all seem to have found at least moderate success and happiness having assimilated into “mainstream” British society. Ujala leaves home at 16. He is the accuser, the hardcore atheist of the family, and some of the things he says (in front of his mother no less) about Islam would make even Christopher Hitchens blush. More moderate are the daughter Mah-Jabin and the older son Charag. Mah-Jabin left a failed marriage to a first cousin in Pakistan, an unresolved wound separating her from her mother. She however is the best friend of Kaukab and perhaps the most understanding. Charag has turned his childhood scars into a successful art career after dropping plans to be a doctor as his parents wanted. In this he clearly stands in for the author. This is where Aslam’s chorus starts to go wrong: a dinner near the end of the novel in which the family finally “has it out” over the deaths of Jugnu and Chanda seals the deal. The whole point with Shamas and Kaukab, and with their children, is precisely that tradition has cut them off from truly human relations with each other, which explains their inability throughout the novel to even express their disagreements. I found the fact that they finally were to be unconvincing, which marred the conclusion of an otherwise masterpiece.

The children also point to where the novel goes off the rails from a social viewpoint. While their lives are not gone into in great detail, they seem to have found happiness simply by escaping the Pakistani ghetto of their childhood. I find this a little hard to swallow. While Western society certainly allows more freedom and its social relationships do not as often lead to violence as a solution as does South Asian Muslim culture, and when it does it is less clear and explicit, I would argue that personal relationships are just as fundamentally fucked up as in Pakistan. Of course it might be better for individuals just from a viewpoint of the amount of physical and emotional damage to be raised in a Western society, but it is really just a matter of degree. Aslam may have found happiness by assimilating into British society. I don’t think many people are actually that happy about it. The work of Jhumpa Lahiri, probably the most famous writer of the South Asian diaspora in the United States, is a useful corrective to this. While she writes about middle class Indian Bengalis as opposed to working class Pakistanis, even her characters have a hard time fitting in and are treated condescendingly by respectable white society. The Namesake is particularly good in this regard. Of course you might object that Lahiri writes about the second generation while Aslam writes about the first, so naturally their characters will have different problems. This is true, and there is nothing wrong with it, but I do think writers bear a certain responsibility for their chosen topic and anything that may result.

Furthermore there is one very large elephant that Aslam forgets far too often: racism. It appears only intermittently in the book as some insensitive remark, made by a white person who quickly disappears and their only function seems to be jerks who are far away from the norm of tolerant white society. This is quite far from the social reality. As noted before, racism in this context is an institutional force which plays a very real role in pushing minority immigrant communities back to their traditions, and then blames them for breeding terrorists and child abusers. The fact that the children of Shamas and Kaukab never seem to experience racism after they have integrated themselves is another mark against Aslam in the “book of life.”

In the end this is my main problem with the book. As a work of art I cannot speak more highly of it. But works of art are products of society, and must somehow be evaluated from that standpoint. Nadeem Aslam has written a book (probably stemming from his own experience) which critiques the traditions of a population that is very much under attack by the ruling class. If it were addressed to his own people that would be one thing. But his book will be read by the usual reader of contemporary English literature: predominantly white, well-educated liberals. What people read is known to have an effect on their political and social viewpoints only if because it often is an easier leisure activity then actual research. In the hands of such people, Maps for Lost Lovers might well become another case against Muslims and help sweep people behind their governments in the War on Terror.

Literary qualities: 5/5, Social qualities: 2/5

Nadeem Aslam, Maps for Lost Lovers. New York: Vintage International, 2003. $14.95

Similar books: Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

Next up: China Miéville, Kraken.

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Filed under Literature, Politics, Reading journal

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