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MAPS FOR LOST LOVERS by Nadeem Aslam. Knopf, 2005. Hardcover, 379 pages. $25.00.
One of the first things that struck me about Maps for Lost Lovers was its sheer lushness, the languid effect of the prose and the dreamlike, without being dreamy, sense of stark and brutal images. To be sure, this novel is not for the fainthearted, but not for the usual reasons. While blatant and grotesque images of death, and the seemingly endless imaginative ways that humans do grave harm to one another abound, Aslam portrays all this against the often stark contrast of the beauty of the natural world. His language is beautiful and lush.
The main players are immigrant Pakistanis in Northern England who attempt to create their own little home away from home in a hostile climate full of hostile people who often revile their very existence:
As in Lahore, a road in this town is named after Goethe. There is a Park Street here as in Calcutta, a Malabar Hill as in Bombay, and a Naag Tolla Hill as in Dhaka. Because it was difficult to pronounce the English names, the men who arrived in this town in the 1950s had re-christened everything they saw before them. They had come from across the Subcontinent, lived together ten to a room, and the name that one of them happened to give to a street or landmark was taken up by the others, regardless of where they themselves were from. But over the decades, as more and more people came, the various nationalities of the Subcontinent have changed the names according to the specific country they themselves are from—Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan. Only one name has been accepted by every group, remaining unchanged. It’s the name of the town itself. Dasht-e-Tanhaii.
The Wilderness of Solitude.
The Desert of Loneliness.
Aslam is astute here because he shows not only the almost institutionalized abhorrence of the Pakistani community in England, but he shows, too, the Pakistani distrust of everything “white” and “contaminated” by decadent Western morals or lack of them. The result is an incredibly balanced, albeit sad, portrayal of bias, both religious and cultural, that conspires to annihilate both body and soul.
Kaukab and Shamas have raised a family and, despite a marriage seemingly made in heaven, their latter years are full of heartache, unfulfilled desire, and little else. Kaukab, who lives and breathes every waking moment according to the precepts of a brand of harsh and unforgiving Islam, unwittingly contributes to the mysterious disappearance of Shamas’s brother Jugnu, a lepidopterist, and his illicit love affair with Chanda, a thrice-married woman in the community. While this mystery is the frontispiece of the novel, everything that revolves around it, especially the lives of Shamas and Kaukab and the children, is testament to the far-reaching ramifications of personal, religious, and social prejudice.
Maps for Lost Lovers is a profound look at lives on a collision course. Full of myth, poetry, and the cadence of music from long ago, it will remain in the consciousness long after the last page has been read.