The Wasted Vigil, by Nadeem Aslam

Lovers in the minefield
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In the opening chapter of The Wasted Vigil, we meet Marcus, an Englishman gone native in Afghanistan. His left hand is missing: "It would be no surprise if trees and vines of Afghanistan suspended their growth one day, fearful that if their roots were to lengthen they might come into contact with a landmine buried nearby." Later we find out, in an unflinching scene, that Marcus didn't lose his hand to a mine but to something far more cruel.

But the stunning opening sets up what is to follow: in this sprawling epic of a novel, Nadeem Aslam's poetic narrative takes in the explosive realities of Afghanistan. He navigates this minefield with sharp reflexes and a rare poise. The book is beautiful and brutal; butterflies, moths, flowers, gems, paintings, poetry and stone Buddhas keep erupting in the middle of this desolate landscape.

The Wasted Vigil spans 30 years of what the media used to call the "Afghan conflict", which has now transformed into the front line of the West's war on terror. Occasionally it harks back to missing GIs in Vietnam, the early days of Soviet space programme and, more ambitiously, the spread of Buddhism in Afghanistan. But the core is made up of intersecting lives destroyed by the ongoing Afghan war: a "companionship of the wound", as Aslam puts it.

Russians, Americans and Afghans come together in a series of immaculately researched and brilliantly rendered set-pieces. But it would be wrong to read the novel as a primer on the history of this forsaken land; it's more of a poetic mediation on the destructive urges that bind us together, and a literary quest to find humanity in the most unlikely of places.

In a disused perfume factory, a Russian woman, Lara, arrives to look for her brother, who deserted the Soviet Army. David, a former CIA operative and veteran of America's covert war, has his own demons to fight. And Marcus, the sage-like former perfume maker and lover of all things fine, mourns his Afghan wife, a victim of the Taliban's war on women. He also searches for a grandson who may or may not be alive.

Just when the reader begins to wonder why are there so few Afghans in a novel about Afghanistan, in walks Casa – a young Talib seeking refuge from his warlord after a botched mission. The West's warped ideas about freedom and Casa's own warped ideas about deliverance collide. The Wasted Vigil doesn't shy from telling these stories from the other's perspective. Afghan tribals are not the rugged and independent fighters of colonial narratives. They kill their own with the same brutality with which they hunt invaders. The US operators dream of the suburbs and debate the government's foreign policy but have no qualms about taking a blowtorch to an Afghan boy's eye: he may or may not be the enemy.

Aslam skilfully weaves in key moments from a tortured history. We are there when the communist President Najibullah's body is strung from a traffic light; we travel with the Taliban as they prepare to invade Kabul; we are given ringside seats at a hand amputation, a stoning and book burnings. A game of Buzkushi with a Soviet soldier used as a goat will remain seared in this reader's memory. But the novel is is also full of tender moments in unlikely places; a fated love blooms between Casa and Dunia, a confident Afghan girl on the run from warlords, as they pass each other a prayer mat. Casa may crave martyrdom, but what he really craves is a childhood and family he never had.

There are episodes in the book so intense, so gruesome, that you have to close it and breathe before you can start again. Similarly, there are poetic images so stunning that you pause and read again to savour the sheer beauty of the language. This will be read as a novel about Afghanistan, but it should be read as a book about love. Nadeem Aslam has said that his father advised him to "always write about love". In this third novel he has shown absolute commitment to that advice. He would make any father proud.

Mohammed Hanif's 'A Case of Exploding Mangoes' is published by Cape