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  • Written by Nadeem Aslam
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Written by Nadeem AslamAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Nadeem Aslam

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On Sale: September 09, 2008
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-27026-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In The Wasted Vigil, Nadeem Aslam, the award-winning author of Maps for Lost Lovers, brilliantly knits together five seemingly unconnected lives to create a luminous story set in contemporary Afghanistan.There’s Marcus, an English expat who was married to an outspoken Afghani doctor; David, a former American spy; Lara, from St. Petersburg, looking for traces of her brother, a Russian soldier who disappeared years before; Casa, a young Afghani whose hatred of the Americans has plunged him into the blinding depths of zealotry; and James, an American Special Forces soldier. Aslamreveals the intertwining paths that these characters have traveled, constructing a timely and intimate portrait of the complex ties that bind us and the wars that continue to tear us apart.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

The Great BuddhaHer mind is a haunted house.The woman named Lara looks up at an imagined noise. Folding away the letter she has been rereading, she moves towards the window with its high view of the garden. Out there the dawn sky is filling up with light though a few of last night’s stars are still visible.She turns after a while and crosses over to the circular mirror leaning against the far wall. Bringing it to the centre of the room she places it face up on the floor, gently, soundlessly, a kindness towards her host who is asleep in an adjoining room. In the mirror she ignores her own image, examining the reflection of the ceiling instead, lit by the pale early light.The mirror is large—if it was water she could dive and disappear into it without touching the sides. On the wide ceiling are hundreds of books, each held in place by an iron nail hammered through it. A spike driven through the pages of history, a spike through the pages of love, a spike through the sacred. Kneeling on the dusty floor at the mirror’s edge she tries to read the titles. The words are reversed but that is easier than looking up for entire minutes would be.There is no sound except her own slow breathing and, from outside, the breeze trailing its rippling robes through the overgrown garden.She slides the mirror along the floor as though visiting another section of a library.The books are all up there, the large ones as well as those that are no thicker than the walls of the human heart. Occasionally one of them falls by itself in an interior because its hold has weakened, or it may be brought down when desired with the judicious tapping of a bamboo pole.A native of the faraway St. Petersburg, what a long journey she has made to be here, this land that Alexander the Great had passed through on his unicorn, an area of fabled orchards and thick mulberry forests, of pomegranates that appear in the border decorations of Persian manuscripts written one thousand years ago.Her host’s name is Marcus Caldwell, an Englishman who has spent most of his life here in Afghanistan, having married an Afghan woman. He is seventy years old and his white beard and deliberate movements recall a prophet, a prophet in wreckage. She hasn’t been here for many days so there is hesitancy in her still regarding Marcus’s missing left hand. The skin cup he could make with the palms of his hands is broken in half. She had asked late one evening, delicately, but he seemed unwilling to be drawn on the subject. In any case no explanations are needed in this country. It would be no surprise if the 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 near by.She lifts her hand to her face and inhales the scent of sandalwood deposited onto the fingers by the mirror’s frame. The wood of a living sandal tree has no fragrance, Marcus said the other day, the perfume materialising only after the cutting down.Like the soul vacating the body after death, she thinks.•Marcus is aware of her presence regardless of where she is in the house. She fell ill almost immediately upon arrival four days ago, succumbing to the various exhaustions of her journey towards him, and he has cared for her since then, having been utterly alone before that for many months. From the descriptions she had been given of him, she said out of her fever the first afternoon, she had expected an ascetic dressed in bark and leaf and accompanied by a deer of the wilderness.She said that a quarter of a century ago her brother had entered Afghanistan as a soldier with the Soviet Army, and that he was one of the ones who never returned home. She has visited Afghanistan twice before in the intervening decades but there has neither been proof of life nor of death, until perhaps now. She is here this time because she has learnt that Marcus’s daughter might have known the young Soviet man.He told her his daughter, Zameen, was no longer alive.“Did she ever mention anything?” she asked.“She was taken from this house in 1980, when she was seventeen years old. I never saw her again.”“Did anyone else?”“She died in 1986, I believe. She had become a mother by then—a little boy who disappeared around the time she died. She and an American man were in love, and I know all this from him.”This was on the first day. She then drifted into a long sleep.From the various plants in the garden he derived an ointment for the deeply bruised base of her neck, the skin there almost black above the right shoulder, as though some of the world’s darkness had attempted to enter her there. He wished pomegranates were in season as their liquid is a great antiseptic. When the bus broke down during the journey, she said, all passengers had disembarked and she had found herself falling asleep on a verge. There then came three blows to her body with a tyre iron in quick succession, the disbelief and pain making her cry out. She was lying down with her feet pointed towards the west, towards the adored city of Mecca a thousand miles away, a disrespect she was unaware of, and one of the passengers had taken it upon himself to correct and punish her.Her real mistake was to have chosen to travel swaddled up like the women from this country, thinking it would be safer. Perhaps if her face had been somewhat exposed, the colour of her hair visible, she would have been forgiven as a foreigner. Everyone, on the other hand, had the right to make an example of an unwise Afghan woman, even a boy young enough to be her son.Marcus opens a book. The early morning light is entering at a low angle from the window. The fibres of the page throw their elongated shadows across the words, so much so that they make the text difficult to read. He tilts the page to make it catch the light evenly, the texture of the paper disappearing.Within the pages he finds a small pressed leaf, perfect but for a flake missing at the centre as though chewed off by a silkworm. The hole runs all the way through the pages also, where he had pulled out the iron nail to gain access to the words.He has given her only the purest water when she has been thirsty. This country has always been a hub of things moving from one point of the compass to another, religion and myth, works of art, caravans of bundled Chinese silk flowing past camels loaded with glass from ancient Rome or pearls from the Gulf. The ogre whose activities created one of Afghanistan’s deserts was slain by Aristotle. And now Comanche helicopters bring sizeable crates of bottled water for America’s Special Forces teams that are operating in the region, the hunt for terrorists continuing out there. Caches of this water are unloaded at various agreed locations in the hills and deserts, but two winters ago a consignment must have broken its netting—it fell from the sky and came apart in an explosion close to Marcus’s house, a blast at whose core lay water not fire, the noise bringing him to the window to find the side of the house dripping wet and hundreds of the gleaming transparent bottles floating on the lake in front of the house. A moment later another roped bundle landed on the lake and sank out of sight. Perhaps it broke up and released the bottles, or did it catch on something down there and is still being held? Water buried inside water. He skimmed many of the bottles from the surface before they could disperse and found others over the coming days and weeks, split or whole, scattered in the long grasses of his neglected orchard.He lowers his pale blue eyes to the book.It is a poet’s diwan, the most noble of matters, dealt with in the most noble of words. As always the first two pages of verse are enclosed within illuminated borders, an intricate embroidery in ink. Last night she had clipped his fingernails, which he normally just files off on any available abrasive surface. When she leaves she should take a volume from the impaled library. Perhaps everyone who comes here should be given one so that no matter where they are in the world they can recognise each other. Kin. A fellowship of wounds. They are intensely solitary here. The house stands on the edge of a small lake; and though damaged in the wars, it still conveys the impression of being finely carved, the impression of being weightless. At the back is the half-circle formed by the overgrown garden and orchard. Shifting zones of birdsong, of scent. A path lined with Persian lilac trees curves away out of sight, the branches still hung with last year’s berries, avoided by birds as they are toxic.The ground begins to rise back there gradually until it reaches the sky. The broad chalk line of permanent snow up there, thirteen thousand feet high, is the mighty range of mountains containing the cave labyrinths of Tora Bora.At the front of the house, a mile along the edge of the lake, is the village that takes its name from the lake. Usha. Teardrop. Thirty miles farther is the city of Jalalabad. Because Lara is Russian, Marcus’s immediate fear regarding her illness was that she had been fed a poison during the hours she had spent waiting for him in Usha, her country having precipitated much of present-day Afghanistan’s destruction by invading in 1979.•In the darkness soon after four a.m. one night, Lara had got out of bed. Accompanied by candlelight she went into the various rooms of the house, moving under that sheath of books, needing movement after the countless hours of being still. She avoided the room where Marcus was but entered others, looking, enclosed within the sphere of yellow light from the flame in her hand. Somewhere very far away a muezzin had begun the call to the prayers of dawn, defined by Islam as the moment when a black thread can just be distinguished from a white one without artificial light.When enough light began to enter the house, she placed mirrors on the floor to look at the books overhead, though not all of them had been nailed with the titles facing out, and any number of them were in languages she did not possess.Some years ago, at a point when the Taliban could have raided the house any day, Marcus’s wife had nailed the books overhead in these rooms and corridors. Original thought was heresy to the Taliban and they would have burned the books. And this was the only way that suggested itself to the woman, she whose mental deterioration was complete by then, to save them, to put them out of harm’s reach.Lara imagined stretching a fishing net at waist level, imagined going to the room directly above and banging her feet until all the books were dislodged and caught without further harm in the net. Marcus said the deep rumble of the B52s had shaken loose every book from one side of a corridor when Tora Bora began to be bombed day and night up there in 2001. The intermittent rain in the whole house had intensified during those weeks in fact.The Englishman said he had bought the house more than forty years ago, just before he married his wife, Qatrina, who like him was a doctor. “I used to say she brought me Afghanistan in her dowry,” he said. The house was built by an old master calligrapher and painter in the last years of the nineteenth century. He belonged to what was almost the final generation of Muslim artists to be trained in the style of the incomparable Bihzad. When the six-roomed building was complete, the master—who had painted images on the walls of each room—brought to it the woman he wished to make his companion for life. Beginning on the ground floor, each of the first five rooms was dedicated to one of the five senses, and as the courtship slowly progressed over the following weeks, the couple went from one to the next:The first was dedicated to the sense of sight, and on the walls, among other things, Subha in a dancerly gesture presented her eye to a rogue in the forest.Allah created through the spoken word, read the inscription above the door that led to the interior about hearing. Here the walls showed singers and musical gatherings, a lute with a songbird sitting on its neck—teaching perhaps, perhaps learning.From there they moved to the faculty of smell, where angels bent down towards the feet of humans, to ascertain from the odour whether these feet had ever walked towards a mosque. Others leaned towards bellies, to check for fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.In the room about the sense of touch, there was a likeness of Muhammad with his hand plunged in a jar. He was someone who would not shake hands with women, so in order to make a pact he would put his hand in a vessel containing water and withdraw it, and then the woman would put her hand into the water.Then it was on to taste, and from that room they ascended to the highest place in the house: it contained and combined all that had gone before—an interior dedicated to love, the ultimate human wonder, and that was where she said yes.The imagery was there on the walls still but, out of the fear of the Ta- liban, all depictions of the living things had been smeared with mud by Marcus. Even an ant on a pebble had been daubed. It was as though all life had been returned to dust. Consolation of a kind could be had from the fact that most of the rest of the images had survived—the inanimate things, the trees and the skies, the streams. And since the demise of the Ta- liban, Marcus had begun slowly to remove the swirled covering of mud. The highest room stands completely revealed now.Marcus took Lara to one corner and pointed to the foliage painted there. When she looked closely she saw that a chameleon was sitting perfectly camouflaged on a leaf. She leaned closer to that lovely fiction and touched it. “The Taliban would even burn a treasured family letter because the stamp showed a butterfly,” said Marcus. “But I missed this, and so did they.”Roaming the house at night, her shadow trembling in accordance with the candle flame, Lara had entered the topmost room. The walls were originally a delicate faded gold, painted with scenes of lovers either in an embrace or travelling towards each other through forest and meadow. They were badly damaged by bullets. When the Taliban came to the house they had proceeded to annihilate anything they considered un-Islamic within it. What they had heard about this room had enraged them the most. This they wanted to blow up, even though the lovers had been made to disappear behind a veil of earth by Marcus.Lara’s eyes moved across the shattered skin of the walls, the candle picking up hints of gold here and there. This country was one of the greatest tragedies of the age. Torn to pieces by the many hands of war, by the various hatreds and failings of the world. Two million deaths over the past quarter-century. Several of the lovers on the walls were on their own because of the obliterating impact of the bullets—nothing but a gash or a terrible ripping away where the corresponding man or woman used to be. A shredded limb, a lost eye.A sound originating in one of the other rooms startled her where she stood, her heart speeding up at the possibilities.It was not a thief, she reassured herself, nor a Taliban fighter looking for somewhere to hide. Nor an Arab, Pakistani, Uzbek, Chechen, Indonesian terrorist—seed sprouted from the blood-soaked soil of Muslim countries. On the run since the autumn of 2001, al-Qaeda appeared to be regrouping, to kidnap foreigners, organise suicide bombings, and behead those it deemed traitors, those it suspected of informing the Americans.“What fool drew this?” the Tsar had demanded to know of a fortress that a student at the Academy of Military Engineering in St. Petersburg had drawn inadvertently without doors. The young man was Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Lara wished this house was similarly devoid of entrances as she slowly moved along the corridor, the drops of molten wax sliding down the side of the red candle in her hand.No one came near the house, Marcus had told her, because the area around the lake is said to contain the djinn. Lake wind, mountain wind, orchard wind collide in the vicinity, but to the Muslims the air is also lastingly alive with the good and bad invisible tribes of the universe. If that was not sufficient, a ghost said to be that of his daughter, Zameen, had appeared in one of the rooms the day the Taliban came here, the apparition putting them to flight.After the sound, she was aware of the completeness of the night’s silence.Perhaps Marcus, fumbling, had dropped an object. The word “lame” described what happened when a foot or leg became damaged or was missing, but she could think of no specific term for when an arm or hand became unavailable, though the body was just as out of balance.She entered a room and stopped when she saw the book that had detached itself from the ceiling and fallen with the thump she had heard. The disturbed dust of the floor was still in movement around the book.She picked it up and, setting the candle down, wrested out the nail. Opening the book on the floor she began to read, sitting chin-on-knee beside it.Tell the earth-thievesTo plant no more orchards of deathBeneath this star of oursOr the fruit will eat them up.•In the garden Marcus opens his eyes, feeling as though someone has drawn near and blocked his sunlight, but there is no one. Letters and messages, and visits, are received from the departed. And so occasionally, and for a fraction of a second, it is not strange to expect such a thing from those who have died. It lasts the shortest of durations and then the mind recalls the facts, remembers that some absences are more absolute than others.It was in the darkness of the night, in 1980, that the band of Soviet soldiers had broken into the house to pick up Zameen. The cold touch of a gun at his temple was what awoke Marcus. The darkness was cross-hatched with the silver beams of several flashlights. Qatrina, beside him, came out of her sleep on hearing his sounds of confusion. In those initial moments of perplexity she thought this might be a repeat of what had happened the previous week, when a patient was brought to the house in the middle of the night, the victim of a Soviet chemical weapon from the day before, his body already rotting when he was discovered in a field an hour after the attack, his fingers still looped with the rosary he had been holding. He must have been in unimaginable pain, and though he couldn’t speak the stare from him was so strong it verged on sound.The couple were not allowed to switch on the light but there appeared to be about ten soldiers. From their voices Marcus could tell they were in their teens or early twenties. He wondered if they were deserters, frightened young boys running away from the Soviet Army, running away from the Soviet Union. People from East Germany, even from as far away as Cuba, came to Kabul and then defected to the West. His mind was jolted out of this consideration when they asked for his daughter by name.Qatrina’s grip on his forearm tightened. There had been reports of Soviet soldiers landing their helicopter to abduct a girl and flying away with her, parents or lovers following the trail of her clothing across the landscape and finally coming across her naked bone-punctured body, where she had been thrown out of the helicopter after the men had been sated.Two of the soldiers could speak a broken Pashto and they were asking for Zameen and would give no explanation as to how they knew her or why they had come for her. There followed moments of rancour and violence towards Marcus and Qatrina. The men had searched the house before waking them, and had been unable to locate the girl.A soldier stayed with them while the others spread out through the house once again, their voices low: it was a time of war and they always had to be alert to the possible presence of rebels near by. Some were searching the garden and the orchard, others Marcus’s perfume factory which stood beyond the garden, a voice drifting up now and then. There was great urgency in them, and Marcus thought of the night the previous year when the Soviet Army had entered Kabul, the Spetsnaz commandos running through the corridors of the Presidential Palace looking for the president, whom they immediately put to death when they found him.Marcus and Qatrina managed to engage the Pashto-speaking soldier in a conversation.“Your daughter is sympathetic to the insurgency. Her name is on the list we have been given by an insider.”“There must be some mistake,” Marcus said through the cut mouth.“Then where is she at this hour? We are here as part of a big operation in Usha tonight, to capture those who attacked the school earlier this month. We’ll make them pay for the twenty-seven lives we lost.”The sun was beginning to rise outside when someone came in and said Zameen had been apprehended.The lapis lazuli of their land was always desired by the world, brushed by Cleopatra onto her eyelids, employed by Michelangelo to paint the blues on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and, from the look of certain sections of the sky above Marcus and Qatrina as they came out into the garden, it could have been Afghanistan’s heights that were mined for lapis lazuli, not its depths.The couple searched their surroundings and then went into Usha, trying to understand what had happened.Hours later, as dusk began to fall, Qatrina stood beside an acacia tree, holding with both hands the clothesline tied around the trunk. Marcus thought it was for balance, but then saw that the section of the rope between her hands was tinted indigo, where one of Zameen’s dresses had once seeped colour into it, the dress she must have been wearing when they captured her because it was missing from her room.He led her back to the house, the perfume from the acacia clinging to her. The djinn were supposed to live in the scent of acacia blossom, making themselves visible only to the young in order to entrap them in otherworldly love.


From the Hardcover edition.
Nadeem Aslam|Author Q&A

About Nadeem Aslam

Nadeem Aslam - The Wasted Vigil

Photo © Richard Lea-Hair

Nadeem Aslam is the author of three highly acclaimed novels: Season of the Rainbirds, which won a Betty Trask Award; Maps for Lost Lovers, which was a New York Times Notable Book, winner of the Kiriyama Prize, shortlisted for the IMPAC prize, and longlisted for the Booker Prize; and, most recently, The Wasted Vigil. He is also the recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship. Born in Pakistan, he lives in England.

Author Q&A


Q: What made you choose Afghanistan as a setting for THE WASTED VIGIL?
A:
In 1992, when I finished my first novel I more or less tossed a coin to determine what book I would write next: my Afghanistan novel or my British-immigrant novel. Both subjects seemed equally urgent—a bloody civil war had begun in Afghanistan, and the Pakistani immigrant community in Britain seemed well advanced on the path that would lead to the suicide bombings on July 7, 2005. I began to write Maps for Lost Lovers, my immigrant novel, and as soon as I finished it in spring 2003, I started work on THE WASTED VIGIL.

When in the 1980s, the USA and Saudi Arabia began funding and arming the Afghan mujahidin, my family and friends in Pakistan were among the people who warned about the dangers of giving billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Islamic fundamentalists. The predicted horror was unleashed onto the people of Afghanistan soon enough, but it took decades for it to reach the wider world—on September 11, 2001 the consequences became apparent to everyone.

I wanted to explore and record all of that in THE WASTED VIGIL. Afghanistan—a crossroads of history—seemed an appropriate place to discuss the meeting of Islamic and Western culture, the ‘civilising missions’ and the ‘bringing of democracy,’ Napoleon arriving at Alexandria and proclaiming that the teachings of the Koran dovetailed with the principles of revolutionary France.

Q: How did you go about researching the book? Did you travel to Afghanistan?
A:
I traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan during the writing of the book: talking to teahouse owners as well as professors, graveyard attendants as well as museum curators. And in Britain I interviewed almost 200 Afghan refugees about their memories of Afghanistan, about their grief at what had happened to their country.

I traveled with a historian friend which imparted a certain ‘depth’ to my gaze—looking at a landscape, I wasn’t thinking just of the battle that took place there in 1995, but also of Alexander who had crossed it centuries before.

Traveling in Afghanistan I felt something like Kim, having to conceal this or that side of identity, moving between my two nationalities: in some places I had to tell them I was a Pakistani because Pakistanis were liked there, and to be British would have been dangerous. In others I had to confess to being British because Pakistanis were loathed. A large bomb went off in Kabul while I was there and the city, suspecting Pakistani involvement, became filled with anti-Pakistan sentiment.

Q: One of the key characters in THE WASTED VIGIL is a jihadist. How did you get into his head? Was it hard approaching him as a character?
A:
I talked to boys and young men who had attended terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir. It was easy to imagine a jihadist once I realized that they all thought Islam was under threat, that their countries were in danger. The breakthrough came when I thought about what happened on flight United 93 on September 11, 2001. Here is what my jihadist thinks at one point in THE WASTED VIGIL:

Does no one remember what happened on board flight United 93? A group of Americanscivilized people, not barbariansdiscovered that their lives, their country, their land, their cities, their traditions, their customs, their religion, their families, their fellow-countrymen, their past, their present, their future, were under attack, and they decided to risk their lives – and eventually gave up their lives – to prevent the other side from succeeding. He could be wrong but to him that seems a lot like what the Muslim martyrdom bombers think they are doing.

Most of my anger is not directed at the boys who become terrorists, who become suicide bombers. It’d be like getting angry at steel or iron after you have been shot: the suicide bombers are just bullets, are just knives. My rage is aimed at the terrorist leaders, the people who lead the confused rudderless young men astray.

Q: THE WASTED VIGIL seems to criticize the United States as much as it does the fundamentalists. Do you consider it a political novel?
A
: I always say that I vote every time I write a sentence. Politics for me is about feeling a certain responsibility towards the world I live in. From my viewpoint, all writing is political—even nonpolitical writing is political. Coming from Pakistan, and belonging to the Islamic world, I can’t not be aware of how politics affects our daily lives, how it is not just dry legislations and laws and statements. It’s visceral. I lived a stone’s throw from the White House when I taught in Washington, DC earlier this year, and I couldn’t help thinking how certain decisions made in that place in the 1980s became fists as they travelled to Pakistan, fists and hammers that broke my journalist friends’ bodies.

None of this means that my work is composed of slogans. I am first and foremost a novelist. I am happiest when I write something that satisfies me aesthetically but which also repays some of the debt I feel I owe to the world.

Q: Which writers do you admire and did anyone in particular inspire this novel?
A:
Vasko Popa, Ivan Lalic, Czelaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska… I seem to be naming only poets. Among prose writers: Melville, John Berger, VS Naipaul, Michael Ondaatje, Bruno Schulz.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Harrowing yet beautiful. . . . With astonishing lyricism and compassion, Aslam creates unforgettable characters. . . . As gripping as it is affecting.”
Boston Globe

“Extraordinary. . . . Aslam’s determination to gaze resolutely at the darkest side of our many cold and hot wars is what gives The Wasted Vigil its depth and power.”
—Pankaj Mishra, The New York Review of Books

“Unflinching. . . . [Aslam] seeks to reveal the psyche not just of one rural village or one immigrant community but of Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States and Afghanistan. The revelations throughout are artful.”
New York Times Book Review

“Heartbreaking. . . . Important. . . . This novel deserves as wide an audience as the recent bestseller The Kite Runner.”
The Oregonian

“The power of Aslam’s novel lives in the explosive adjacency of brutality and love, the poison of fanaticism diluted by the perfume of Persian lilacs.”
O, The Oprah magazine

“Unforgettable. . . . Tragic and beautifully written. Aslam is a major writer.”
—A. S. Byatt

“Even more beautifully written than his much-acclaimed Maps for Lost Lovers.
Financial Times

“Remarkable for being at once topical and timeless—a complex and layered vision of contemporary Afghanistan. . . . Like Michael Ondaatje before him, Aslam has a way of breathing life into larger historical and political backdrops with sensual details and lush interior lives. The Wasted Vigil shimmers with moments of poetic beauty and seems destined, like The English Patient, to become a classic of modern, globalized literature.”
Time Out New York

“A searing, multifaceted novel. . . . You might think that there is a particular specter haunting Afghanistan in these early years of the 21st century—the Taliban—but in Aslam’s penetrating view, there are multiple forces at work there.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Both lyrical and sharp. . . . It’s a bold task to attempt to point out the similarities between a Muslim fundamentalist’s zeal and an American CIA agent’s righteous view of his job, yet, amid a sweeping story about love, Aslam does exactly this with considerable poise.”
The Christian Science Monitor

“Stunning. . . . In this epic of a novel, Nadeem Aslam’s narrative takes in the explosive realities of Afghanistan. He navigates this minefield with sharp reflexes and a rare poise. . . . Beautiful and brutal.”
—Mohammed Hanif, Independent (UK)

“Ambitious and luminous. . . . Reminds us that fiction can do things that mere reportage can’t. . . . Aslam does not simply appropriate a few headlines for easy currency. He has immersed himself in a country and a culture and drawn upon art, mythology and history to provide an involving and morally complex tale of the ruthless betrayals and the queasy compromises that are made by nations and individuals alike.”
The Sunday Times (London)

“At its core, The Wasted Vigil is not a book about Afghanistan, but of love. . . . Aslam’s Afghanistan is both beautiful and fraught with danger, with stunning images and landscapes that bring his characters’ world to life, all of it rich with symbolism.”
Charleston City Paper

“What the reader finds, in Aslam’s exquisitely written, gripping narrative, is that although war destroys lives and shatters families, and people are capable of the greatest brutality, love and humanity still survive.”
Daily Mail (London)

“The softly gleaming beauty of Aslam’s prose is immediately reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje, and the moral clarity of his concerns heralds a brave new voice in the mold of Salman Rushdie.”
St. Petersburg Times

“Spellbinding—a beautifully drawn web of the fragile connections of trust, misunderstanding, memory, sacrifice, and, against the odds, love, that people who have lost everything else in the deadly stupidity of war must live and die by. Nadeem Aslam is a master of words and arresting images. . . . The sheer, astonishing loveliness of this novel’s language fills the reader with hope that the transformative power of beauty can, somehow, still save the day.”
The Times (London)

“Piercing. . . . There isn’t enough beauty in the world, but isn’t it true that a work of art can be too beautiful? Aren’t there depths of suffering and barbarity that demand that the writer rein in the verbal glory? Nadeem Aslam doesn’t think so, as he proves with his astonishing new novel.”
The Observer (London)

“Enthralling. . . . The Wasted Vigil is a delicate work of art, a tapestry, which connects people in a mesmerizing story of loss, memory and pain, but where humanity and love and its fragility emerge out of the debris.”
New Statesman (London)
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Harrowing yet beautiful. . . . With astonishing lyricism and compassion, Aslam creates unforgettable characters.”
The Boston Globe

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group's discussion of Nadeem Aslam's novel, The Wasted Vigil.

About the Guide

The Wasted Vigil takes readers into the very heart of Afghanistan, revealing the impact of the large historical and religious forces—the decades of war, exploitation, and fundamentalist repression—on the lives of five remarkable characters. Marcus, an English doctor who has lived in Afghanistan for many years, married an Afghan woman, Qatrina, and converted to Islam; David, a former cold war spy for the US, who has returned to Afghanistan to try to discover the fate of the boy he thinks of as his son; Lara, a Russian woman who is searching for her brother, Benedikt, a soldier who went AWOL during the Soviet invasion; Casa, a bitterly angry young jihadi eager to give his life for Islam; and James, an American special forces agent willing to go to any lengths to protect America from Islamic terrorists.

Through the intersecting lives of these characters, Aslam opens multiple perspectives on the ruined world of Afghanistan and constructs a story of remarkable depth and complexity. The novel shows how the undercurrents of personal and political history surge into the present and threaten to engulf the characters and the world around them. Indeed, the narrative progresses not so much in a linear arc as by a layering of past and present, a steady accretion and deepening of each character's personal history that reveals the many ways their individual fates are tied up with the fate of Afghanistan. Marcus's story, for example, is revealed incrementally; readers are told that he is missing a hand, but how that hand was lost is not made clear until much later in the novel, as more and more of his past is presented. Casa, too, is shaped by the violence of his past, having lost his parents and grown up in refugee camps where he was scarred by Soviet bombings. The cruelty and loss of dignity he has suffered have made him ripe for recruiting by Islamic jihadis. Likewise, David's past as a spy, his relationship to Marcus's daughter, Zameen, and to James' father, Christopher, is gradually revealed as David comes more clearly into focus. The novel as a whole shows how past is prologue, how the ramifications of Soviet and American meddling in Afghanistan, and the repression of the Taliban, are still being profoundly felt in the lives of Lara, Marcus, David, James, and Casa. Each character becomes increasingly complex as the story takes shape, and any worldview that sees clear-cut distinctions between good and evil is shown to be hopelessly simplistic in Aslam's nuanced rendering.

The Wasted Vigil offers a portrait of Afghanistan that is at once intimate and panoramic, capturing the sweep of history and the turbulence of the human heart. It is a work of fiction that reveals the emotional truth of life in this war-ravaged country more starkly and viscerally than any journalistic or historical account could have done.

About the Author

Nadeem Aslam is the author of two previous novels, both of which were longlisted for the Man Booker Prize: Maps for Lost Lovers, winner of the Kiriyama Prize and a New York Times Notable Book, and Season of the Rainbirds. He is also the recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship. Born in Pakistan, he now lives in England.

Discussion Guides

1. Nadeem Aslam has been widely praised for his richly poetic prose style. What passages in the book seem especially beautifully written? What makes these passages so powerful?

2. Early in the novel, readers learn that Marcus has lost his hand. Why does Aslam withhold the story of precisely how he lost that hand until much later in the book?

3. When David confronts James about torturing Casa, telling him that it's illegal, James replies: “Illegal? This is war, David. You've been looking into the wrong law books. These are battlefield decisions” [p. 305]. How else does James justify torture? Why is David so fiercely opposed to it? How do their arguments relate to the current controversy about the United States' use of torture in the “war on terror”?

4. James says of Casa and fundamentalists like him: “They are children of the devil. They have no choice but to spread destruction in the world.” David counters: “He is the child of a human, which means he has a choice and he can change” [p. 306]. Discuss these differing points of view.

5. How does The Wasted Vigil deepen our understanding of both the Soviet and American conflicts in Afghanistan? What does the novel suggest about the motives and methods of American and Soviet involvement in the region?

6. How is the Taliban depicted in the novel? Why are they so violently repressive of women and so fiercely opposed to education?

7. What aspects of his personal and family history draw Casa to become a jihadi? How does Aslam manage to make him a sympathetic a character?

8. What does The Wasted Vigil say about how war damages human relationships—between parents and children, wives and husbands, lovers and friends?

9. What does Marcus mean when he thinks of himself: “He is alive but has been buried in many graves”? [p. 317].

10. Why is the overturned giant stone head of the Buddha that rests in what was once Marcus's perfume factory given such a prominent place in the novel? What is the symbolic value of this statute?

11. The narrator writes: “This is among the few things that can be said about love with any confidence. It is small enough to be contained within the heart but, pulled thin, it would drape the entire world” [p. 307]. In what ways is The Wasted Vigil as much about love as it is about violence, hatred, and war?

12. What is it that brings Lara, David, Marcus, Casa, and James to Marcus's house? In what ways is the house itself symbolic?

13. What are some of the most tense and shocking moments in the book? Why does Aslam include such graphic depictions of violence in the novel? What effects do these depictions have on the reader?

14. Near the end of the novel, Marcus reflects: “Both sides in Homer's war, when they arrive to collect their dead from the battlefield, weep freely in complete sight of each other. Sick at heart. This is what Marcus wants, the tears of one side fully visible to the other” [p. 314]. Why does Marcus want this? What good might come of each side witnessing the grief of the other?

Suggested Readings

Feryal Ali Gauhar, No Space for Further Burials; Karmi Ghada, In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story; Philip Hensher, The Mulberry Empire; Yasmina Khadra, The Swallows of Kabul; Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns; Francesca Marciano, The End of Manners; James Meek, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent; Rory Stewart, The Places in Between.

  • The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam
  • September 08, 2009
  • Fiction; Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $16.00
  • 9780307388742

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