Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam

26/06/04, The Times

In an English town overwhelmingly populated by Pakistani immigrants, Jugnu and his lover, Chanda, have gone missing. On a cold winter morning, Chanda’s brothers are arrested on the charge of honour-killing their sister and her lover. Nadeem Aslam’s second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers, focuses on the twelve months mostly in the lives of Shamas, Jugnu’s brother, and Shamas’s wife, Kaukab, in the aftermath of the event that unravels lives and the immigrant community and severely puts to the test their Islamic faith and traditions. It is a novel about dislocation, exile and alienation, about the strengths and tyrannies of close-knit communities, about the individual versus the social. A vitally important book was always waiting to be written about Pakistani immigrants in Britain; alas, this book is not it.

The prose style spectacularly fails to live up to the promise of his first novel, Season of the Rainbirds. The tonal, syntactical and grammatical wobble is so giant and pervasive, I would call it a wave.  When you add to this Aslam’s habit of writing ‘poetic’ prose, the combination is explosive. Every sentence is embellished and decorated to an inch of its life, and then some more. Nothing is what it is, everything is like something else. The simile habit is almost an illness: peppers are ‘red as birth’, frozen clumps of grass snap underfoot with the sound of cinnamon being halved and quartered in the kitchen, carnations are ‘red as bullet wounds, luxuriant with pain’, the ‘flashing’ pink insides of guavas ‘are like a burst of poetry’, onion slices are coated with ‘fiery black pepper so that every curving piece would become as lethal as a sword in the hand of a drunkard’, shadows begin to stretch ‘like chewing gum’.

The ornamenting is compulsive, an enervated tic as hapless as Tourette’s: Aslam simply will not leave things alone. Every single sentence rings untrue, off-key, the hothouse writing is exoticised with calculated and self-consciously ‘beautiful’ things, the registers are a zigzag of erratic abandon, the similes are, without exception, recherché and embarrassingly infelicitous, the tenses are textbook examples of precarious grammar: this book is nothing short of a monumental error.

There are shocking insights into the havoc that a rigidly conservative interpretation of Islam wreaks on the lives of its own followers, especially on women, and Aslam tries to convey his real outrage for the raw deal they get. Suraya is divorced by her husband in Pakistan in a fit of drunkenness and, according to Islamic law, has to get married to and divorced from another man in order to be reunited with her first husband and their child. Desperate, she starts an affair with Shamas, hoping he is going to be the route out of all this. The stories of Shamas and Kaukab’s children, Charag, Mah-Jabin and Ujala, all educated in the West, are set against their mother’s inflexible Islamic piety and, on a rare occasion, Aslam even manages to tell a beguiling little story, that of the courtship between Shamas and Kaukab, but all this is subjugated to and defeated by the endless, decorative wandering. Content is form and when the style is such a dense forest of camp curlicues, tendrils and arabesques, the social heart of the novel remains occluded and its world, deeply unconvincing. Never mind the ‘glint-slippered’ frost, ‘the pearl hour’ of late afternoon, the air flowing ‘a sad amber’ and ice puddles breaking to release water that mixes with snow ‘in a sapphire slush’(‘Sapphire slush’? Where in England does one get sapphire slush, I demand to know), get on with the story, you want to scream.

An aesthetic, even as perverse as this, is ideology, too, and the relentlessness of all this florid excess shows up the dishonest core of the book: it is heaving and straining for ethnic exoticism. It’s the perfect book for the insidious, patronising neo-colonial lobby who are still looking for the mysterious magic of the Subcontinent, of the smell of spice bazaars and the colours of gorgeous handwoven textiles in their retarded idea of the Subcontinental novel. The world divides into two kinds of people – those who love this sort of thing and those who don’t – and there seems to be an unquenchable appetite for such books, but you would have to be a ruminant not to get indigestion. A word of advice in booksellers’ ears: the book can have a perfect tie-in with Marigold gloves. Gentle reader, you will need to wear them to prevent your hands from being stained an indelible purple.