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Maps for a Lost Generation, Oct. 22 2006
A book review of Nadeem Aslam's `Maps for Lost Lovers'
Reading this book for me was like eating a bowl of 'gulaab jaamans'* after a two day fast; sinfully pleasurable, drowning in sheera, oozing forth warmth and sticky sweetness, intensely gratifying in its every mouthful; but at the same time exhausting and devastating in its after effects.
Seriously speaking, from what I understand, it took Nadeem Aslam more than eleven years to bring this story to life; and it shows. Every sentence, every word in this novel bears witness to the painstaking effort that he has put into writing this literal work of art. I can't recall of any emerging modern day English author of Pakistani origin who has produced a work of fiction of this quality before.
`Maps for Lost Lovers' attempts to take a close look at the lives, beliefs and ideas etched in the minds of the Pakistani immigrant community in the UK. It brings together a cast of powerful, thought provoking, but ultimately doomed characters, who, through their well intentioned but misguided beliefs and actions end up destroying not only their own lives, but also the lives of those nearest and dearest to them. From the ultra orthodox Kaukab to the gentle Shamas to the damned Suraya, Nadeem Aslam has gone to great lengths to develop and capture the nuances and subtleties of his creations, whose lonely souls, trapped in internal conflict, seem to drift in eternal exile through the ruthless Dasht-e-Tanhai, The Desert of Loneliness (physically an immigrant town situated somewhere in the bleak English midlands). While the main theme of the story revolves around an honour killing, the book attempts to explore several other complex issues including racism, religion, fidelity, sex and of course isolation.
The author's rich, lush and poetic style of writing makes this a must read. Nadeem's inspiration appears to stem from the deep personal turmoil, confusion and ultimately rebellion that he must have experienced growing up as part of a conservative lower middle class Pakistani émigré family in the UK. This personal experience, mixed with a style of writing influenced heavily by Eastern/ Persian poetry and prose, make for a beautiful, but tragic read. Through this book I believe Nadeem voices the perspective of, and expresses the confusion and social persecution suffered by, the lost generation of British born children of Pakistani labour class immigrants of the 1970's. Torn between the conflicting ideals of the world they were growing up in and the time warped moralities imposed by their isolated families, the children of this generation have had the misfortune of experiencing a massive identity crisis, which even today is making its uneasy presence felt across the UK, and in some ways across the world.
I would gladly have given this book five stars had it not been for the relentless attack that Nadeem launches on Pakistani immigrants and Islam. The persistent Pakistani and Islam bashing is not only detracting from the main story, but also at times quite exaggerated and factually incorrect (I have never before heard of people exhaling thrice to ward off the devil, or reciting religious verses before ejaculating). Such extreme mind sets are very much the exception rather than the norm, contrary to what has been portrayed in the book. The writer's personal bias is far too evident, and adds a hint of immaturity to a work that is otherwise captivating, and at times haunting, in its exquisite detail and beauty. Nadeem also employs an overwhelming amount of metaphor as a part of his expression. Some may find this to be integral and indispensable to the whole `feel' of the novel, while others may find it nauseating (I fortunately am amongst the first group).
In any case, I would recommend 'Maps for Lost Lovers' to all who may be interested in reading it, and especially to the Pakistani community living in both Britain and in Pakistan itself; there is a need to address the social and psychological issues explored in its theme, and the resolution of these issues can only originate from within the community. It is also refreshing to discover that in this commercialized, disposable, `to go' world there are still people dedicated so utterly, completely and passionately to their chosen vocation. I would strongly encourage Pakistanis and all else to support talented and dedicated individuals like Nadeem Aslam by going out and buying a copy of `Maps for Lost Lovers' at their first `instante'.
* If you haven't eaten these, you haven't been born yet