Britain has probably underachieved in the field of migrant literature, especially considering that possibly the greatest social change wrought in the country since the end of World War Two is the arrival of millions from all corners of the globe. By contrast, it would be a difficult task to make too long a list of essential American migrant literature — titles such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, or Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep have little to compare with in the United Kingdom. Events in recent years, ranging from race riots in the early 2000s, in the sort of communities documented in Nadeem Aslam’s Maps For Lost Lovers (2004), to the arrival of a million Poles who almost to a man and woman filled jobs the British unemployed complained did not exist, to the astonishing reality and all its implications that more British Muslims have defected to Islamic State than belong to the Armed Forces, are evidence that the British migrant experience is rich with potential for literature. One hopes the genre will respond, because if Nadeem Aslam’s second novel is an exemplar of its potential, then by all means give us increase of it.
There is good value in the argument that immigration to Britain has been an extraordinary success. Government targets to keep numbers down are missed due to the appeal of an economy which has recovered from recession better than any other in Europe. Three million newcomers have arrived since 2000, and yet there is no far right movement to speak of, unlike in France, Austria, Greece, and Denmark. Nevertheless, perhaps the most difficult immigration experience has been that of communities who arrived in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s and maintained the more pious forms of Islam and village customs of Pakistan, people to whom the available freedoms of the west are a terrible temptation and threat to religiosity. In Islam’s name, some of these communities’ most retrograde elements have become associated with gender discrimination, illegal shariah courts, forced marriages, gangs of child rapists, and — Aslam’s focus in this novel — honor killings. Some of their most extreme fringe spokesmen are explicit in telling the camera that no, Islam is not a religion of peace, and, no, Islam is not compatible with western values. The ability of the communities to clannishly “close ranks” when needs be makes Aslam’s achievement in writing about some of this all the more remarkable, especially in view of this novel being published when he was just 26. He understands the high price of dowries, arranged marriage and other feudal arrangements, writing separately that “in some families in my street, the grandparents, parents and the children are all first cousins — it’s been going on for generations and so the effects of inbreeding are quite pronounced by now.” He estimated that in his adopted county of Yorkshire, whose many gray and faded industrial towns and cities received large number of Muslim migrants, a minority of 11% is responsible for 70% of all birth defects.
Little as the rest of society seems to know of what are often isolated British Muslim communities, Maps For Lost Lovers offers considerable insight. One of the most comprehensively drawn characters your humble reviewer can recall from any novel is Kaukab, the ultra-orthodox mother of children who have abandoned their traditional upbringing and in one case provided the novel’s epicenter by eloping “in sin” to Pakistan and being murdered, along with his lover, on his return. Kaukab cannot — does not wish to — absolve them of blame for their own deaths. Her world consists of little more than a kitchen and Koranic recitations she does not understand, her knowledge of Arabic sufficient for prayer but not to know what she is actually saying, good only for the supply of “chewing gum for the brain” according to one of her sons. She is a prisoner who loves her chains, all the while aware that Allah is cruel, mendacious, and willful, yet this she unquestionably accepts. At her worst, she starves her children during Ramadan so they too may observe its demands, and feeds them bromide as they reach their teens so that they may resist impure impulses. There is little that can be said in defense of such an individual, but this leads to what is one of the novel’s greater flaws. Such is Aslam’s apparent determination to provide a rounded view of her, long descriptions of the loving preparation of family feasts, for instance, are a slightly labored way of showing her gentler side. It is hardly revolutionary to try to present a more sympathetic view of a monster, such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita or To Kill A Mockingbird’s Mrs. Dubose. What is not quite clear is why any effort at all should be expended in provoking sympathy for Kaukab.
By contrast, no negative view is offered of her closet apostate husband Shamas, who, in indulging in a loving and passionate affair is confronted with the primary practical task of avoiding the whispering network of garrulous taxi drivers positioned to ensure that offences against the community are reported and registered. The juxtaposition of the respective worldviews of Kaukab and Shamas offer Aslam the chance to produce some of his finest insights:
[Kaukab] was too busy longing for the world and time her grandparents came from and he too busy daydreaming about the world and time his grandchildren were to inherit. Those around her were less important to her than those buried under her feet and for him the important ones were those hovering over his head — those yet to be born.
On occasion, Aslam surrenders to the temptation to indulge in too much of this lyricism.
Fishing for carp one night, Shamas’ younger son had catapulted into the lake a mass of flowers from those trees, hoping they would provide an alternative to the expensive hyacinths which drew the fish to the surface within moments, but the cherry blossom was a failure, as were the dandelions that lit up the dark water the following night with a hundred vivid suns; perfume was the key and only the clusters of lilac were a success but their season was gone.
All this may be impressive, evocative, and haunting, but it jars slightly against the generally austere atmosphere which surrounds this community. Other than obstruction of the book’s main focus, it is hard to see what is achieved by descriptions of, for instance, this:
[. . .] mangoes the color of copper pots, guavas whose flashing pink insides are like a burst of poetry and the red pears which everyone is always reluctant to peel because you want to eat the color, wishing eyes had tastebuds.
We also have modern mobile phones as “light as a grasshopper’s husk,” peppers as “red as birth,” carnations “red as bullet wounds, luxuriant with pain”; frost on the ground is “glint slippered,” shadows “stretch like chewing gum,” and onion — yes, onion — pieces are “coated with fiery black pepper so that every curving piece would become as lethal as a sword in the hand of a drunkard.” Let us be charitable and blame youthful exuberance, but that hardly exonerates his editor, who might have told Aslam that he needn’t have provided distraction from the territory in which this novel excels.
An interesting question raised by reading this generally excellent novel eleven years after its publication is what its modern day equivalent might look like. In the meantime, the communities described by Aslam have supplied to Islamic State fighters and defectors numbering into the thousands and produced a seventeen-year-old suicide bomber and the serial beheader known as “Jihadi John.” They produced four suicide bombers who murdered fifty-six commuters in London in July 2005 and have been at the heart of a child sex abuse scandal the depth of which we can only guess at, in relation to which one politician is on the record as stating that it was hushed up for fear that complainants would be accused of racism. Conversely, the period has also seen the emergence of a secular British Muslim tradition and several mainstream commentators who strive, not without considerable opprobrium from religious conservatives who have revitalized puerile terms such as “Uncle Tom,” towards moderation, critical enquiry, and reform. Muslim feminist documentary maker Deeyah Khan recently concluded that tension between domineering pious parents and their sons’ “fascination with girls, sports, and the rest of the modern world” accounts for much of why a sectarian death cult like IS is attractive to so many young Muslims. It would be illuminating to hear Aslam’s view and learn whether or not, if Khan is right, he is optimistic that the younger generation will defy the appalling disservice inflicted upon them by their parents.
While I don’t think over-writing has gone away, and acknowledge part of this is youth, the mid-2000s seemed like a highpoint of florid prose. I’m curious if anyone else shares this impression I have. I’m not saying writing has gotten better over the last ten years, just that I don’t see this vice of over-poeticizing nearly as much as I now see self-indulgent quirkiness/cleverness, and thinking of the mid-2000s makes me think of over-poeticized books.
Thrilled that there’s much more here than that, Chris, and thanks for the interesting angles.