Nadeem Aslam's last two novels did not confront the events of 11th September head-on but modern terror did feature obliquely, like a distant rumble accompanying the central storyline. Religious fanaticism fuelled the honour killings in Maps for Lost Lovers (2004) and jihadi radicalisation featured in The Wasted Vigil (2008). Even a recent Granta short story about female infanticide in Pakistan incorporated this background rumble.
Now, in The Blind Man's Garden, the Pakistani-born Aslam makes a direct address. The devastation sparked by 11th September bursts onto the page as an explicit and bloody fulcrum of this fourth novel. The Twin Tower attacks have happened and Nato forces have become not just the defenders of the free world but also the invaders and torturers of its darkest recesses. This is, in part, a continuation of The Wasted Vigil, which featured an ensemble cast marooned in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion.
The story now focuses on another, later conflict and shifts between Afghanistan and Pakistan, though the subject remains the ugliness of war and its impact on the ordinary individual. The plot winds around one Pakistani family. Rohan is the blind man of the title and his two sons, Mikal and Jeo, are the pawns of war who become embroiled in the fighting in Afghanistan. Even though the novel revolves around this local axis – a father, two brothers, and their life-changing journeys – it is vast in its scope. Themes range from love and martyrdom to the torturing of terror suspects and the "grooming" of jihadi fighters, with the shadow of Guantanamo looming over it all.
There are graphic descriptions of American interrogation techniques and torture. While the language remains rich and poetic, Aslam draws out these scenes unflinchingly – psychological violence, intimidation, sleep deprivation, beatings and shootings. The soldiers bring a tidal wave of blind destruction to Afghanistan that wipes out the innocent with the guilty. The martyrdom of Islamists as well as the chicanery of Afghan warlords adds to this chaos of brutality.
Aslam's painstaking writing process – he works in isolation and self-edits heavily – renders the prose breath-taking, describing sometimes beautiful, sometimes wretched landscapes. It is this hypnotic style that gives Aslam's imagined universe an other-worldly quality, even as the story references the real – America's hunt for Osama bin Laden, the shoe-bomber's capture, echoes of the Tipton Three in Mikal's journey and shadows of Malala's infamous case in Pakistan in descriptions of women's suffering.
The characters, too, take on a mythic aspect that renders them less than solid, as if they were more symbols than flesh-and-blood people. When read as a story that is not aiming for everyday realism, the plot – artful and implausible at times – can work well on this level. Aslam has proven himself adept at showing the struggles within Islam, particularly the tension between extremist Islam and its counterpoint, and he does so most powerfully here. Tara, a strong female character, questions the shifting ground of contemporary Islam: "What strange times are these, when Muslims must fear other Muslims".
The extremists, led by Kyra, are described as "thugs with Korans". The religious rhetoric fed to pupils at the radical Islamic school Ardent Spirit, is a calculated lie told by cynical elders who need to raise an army of frontline fodder. Yet it beguiles nonetheless. Jeo has grown up listening avidly to myths around martyrdom in the way a child might to a fairy-tale. Rohan's devotion to Islam, by contrast, is built around piety and not politics. It is, however, made clear that he is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the young and Kyra is winning.
Nadeem Aslam will appear at the 2013 'Independent' Bath Literary Festival on 10 March. (www.bathlitfest.org.uk)