The dark magic of Nadeem Aslam’s Pakistan

Last week, a friend took me to the launch of the new Granta at Asia House. This colourful new edition is on Pakistan, and she was particularly excited about seeing Daniyal Mueenuddin, the writer of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. I told her that Nadeem Aslam was supposed to be pretty brilliant too – ‘I’ve heard she’s really something.’

When Nadeem Aslam turned out to be a man, I felt somewhat undermined. But I was totally unprepared for what happened next.

Nadeem Aslam (the man) read an extract from his novella Leila in the Wilderness, published in this issue of Granta. It was breathtakingly amazing. I say breathtaking, because the passage – each phrase building on the last, cumulatively forming a gargantuan sentence stretching over three pages, as magnificently beautiful and architecturally impressive as a mosque – was such that Nadeem barely drew breath while reading.

He then explained that he wrote it after going for a run, sitting down to write when still out of breath, and it all poured out in one go, remaining in this raw, unedited form in the final version.

After such a performance, I couldn’t wait to read the full piece. And the novella is even better. (You can read an extract published in the Guardian here.)

Nadeem Aslam’s rural Pakistan combines mythical, fairy-tale beauty with horrific violent realism. His style of magical realism reminds me of Pan’s Labyrinth, the Guillermo del Toro film.

In Pan’s Labyrinth, the main character – eleven-year-old Ofelia – has an imagination that runs wild. She imagines that Pan, a magical faun, gives her tasks that she has to undertake in order to help her pregnant mother and brother-to-be survive illness and the cruelty of her stepfather, Fascist Captain Vidal. The magic of Pan’s Labyrinth is dark – Ofelia has to get a key by getting an enormous toad to vomit it up; she only just escapes from a monster with eyeballs slotted into the palms of his hands, who kills her fairy companions. But this magical world is Ofelia’s only escape from a reality which is even darker – a tyrannous step-father, a dying mother, Spanish rebels tortured and killed just downstairs.

And so, in Leila in the Wilderness, Nadeem Aslam’s magical realism is dark both in its magic and in its reality.

One striking image is that of Leila’s mother growing wings. Taken out of context, the idea of a woman sprouting wings and flying off into the sky is a bit daft. It’s a bit Paulo Coelho, a bit soft, a bit hippy.

But the context is this. When Leila’s father died, he left behind a debt of 1000 rupees. ‘The council of the wise and the powerful argued late into the night and decided that, to make up for the loss, the men of the moneylender’s family could possess the debtor’s widow one hundred times.’

The men got into boats and went down to the lake, where Leila’s mother was collecting lotus leaves, only to return to say that she grew wings and flew away – something that nobody accepted as true, preferring to believe that they drowned her.

But as she grew older, Leila imagined her mother, a quarter of a mile from the lake’s edge, the mist roaming the water like a soft supple fire around her. The seven boats that converged on her bore a total of thirty men, silhouetted in the fine-grained vapour. Some of them leaped over the water like panthers even before the boats connected. She fought them, surrounded, numbed by shock but with her eyes screaming the outrage of her solitude. The only escape was upwards and that was what she had chosen, willing the wings into existence upon her body, the emptiness of mist closing behind her as she rose.

But this isn’t a happy ending. The same council of ‘the wise and the powerful’ decided that the moneylenders must wait for Leila to grow up in order for them to be compensated. And, when Leila was thirteen, they chased after her – using mobile phones to connect with each other – and she managed to escape only to be married into a loveless marriage with a violent tyrant.

Later on, Leila has recourse to grow her own pair of wings, to escape a similar group sexual assault. But she is not so lucky as her mother and is discovered where she landed in the desert and is recaptured, her wings brutally amputated, lacerating her back in a bloody criss-cross of wounds.

Aslam uses weighted poetic language, appropriate for a fable or fairy-tale – ‘the council of the wise and the powerful’, arguing ‘late into the night’. It reads like a timeless myth and yet the modern accessories – mobile phones and (later) Kalashnikovs – bring it right into the present moment. The violence is so great that it pushes at the boundaries of reality – one can scarcely believe it happens. And when one is questioning what can happen and what can’t … well then perhaps Leila’s mother really did grow wings, because surely that’s almost as believable, or no less unbelievable, than thirty men being authorised to collectively rape one woman a hundred times.

Throughout the novella, fairy-tale magic is mixed with modern-day violence, miracles are undermined by corruption, and beauty is betrayed by brutality. It’s unnerving to read – one settles into the fairy-tale prose only to be shocked out of it by an episode of violence or abuse. And it is unforgettable, unmissable and, literally, unbelievable.

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