When was the last time you read a novel where the exceptional Americans were not the heroes, or even heroic? If it has been some time you should consider reading The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam.
But don’t think Al Qaeda and the Taliban are the heroes in this excellent novel. What it expresses is the fundamental strengths of humans: love, family, food, loyalty, and spiritual awareness. The Taliban is forcing the Muslim population back into the 13th century, Al Qaeda is fomenting violence throughout the region and threatening to expand, and the American Gobots are trampling the culture and traditions of the countries they have invaded in their imperialistic zeal to make every do as America says.
America is evil but the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the local warlords don’t fare much better.
The story rises out of Pakistan where two “brothers” decide to go to Afghanistan to support their Moslem brothers against the tyranny of the Americans; but they are not going as combatants, rather to provide medical assistance. Almost immediately the brothers are in a village which is attacked by coalition troops being led by the Americans. From there you get a picture of death and destruction, graft and corruption, misdirected intelligence, regular mistreatment of prisoners, including torture, and at the same time the strength of love and family solidly maintained by those most affected by the destruction of war and fundamentalism.
For the most part, this novel is highly derivative and essentially trite in its narrative: boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy’s “brother” is also in love with girl, boy and “brother” sacrifice themselves with noble acts, boy gets thrown in prison with the bad food and only a small window .. too high to look out of, etc. But what Aslam succeeds at is appliquéing two solid narratives on top of the so-so base narrative: first, the Pakistani family which is firm in their Moslem faith but not living the radical lives which the Taliban would insist on; then the violence and corruption involved in the clash between the Americans and the Moslems fighting in Afghanistan (and elsewhere).
One powerful extended image in the book is that of the bird pardoner. It seems this man captures birds and supports his family by traveling around with the caged birds and having caring people pay to have a bird released to go back to its once happy life in some tree (perhaps in the blind man’s garden). This bird pardoner, in fact, gets permission from the old man to place wire traps and snares in the large tree in that very garden. Birds are trapped, the bird pardoner doesn’t come back in time, some birds live and some birds die. The family is shocked by the cruelty of snaring the birds. But after the old man is blinded when trying to ransom his sons, he is once again approached by the bird pardoner. Is there a lesson here?