In his third novel, The Wasted Vigil
, author Nadeem Aslam paints a portrait of thirty years in modern-day Afghanistan, told through the stories of several different people who come together in a lake house near the Tora Bora caves where Osama bin Laden managed to evade US forces. Published in 2008, the novel uses the stories of its characters to contrast the roots of the problems in Afghanistan with the hope that “family bonds, common humanity, and the rich cultural heritage of this country can somehow rise above the hate of various factions threatening its destruction.” Characters are connected through love, trauma, and physical and psychic wounds—all caused by the pain of endless war. Critics praise Aslam’s lyrical language and moving sense of aesthetics.
Although the stories of the novel’s characters are intertwined, this summary will discuss each separately for the sake of clarity.
Marcus Caldwell is an elderly English expatriate doctor who has lived in Afghanistan for many years. For a long time, as a Muslim convert, he and his outspoken Afghani wife, Qatrina, tried to proselytize a progressive and inclusive version of Islam, a relatively successful endeavor until the rise of the Taliban. After the fundamentalists came to power, Marcus and Quatrina’s marriage was declared illegal and adulterous. As punishment, Marcus’s hand was cut off in a brutally clinical procedure that Qatrina was forced to preside over. Then, Qatrina was stoned to death. Marcus and Qatrina had a daughter, Zameen, who gave birth to a son after a love affair with an American, and who went missing during the invasion of Soviet forces in the 1980s.
Now, Marcus lives in a former perfume factory where he worked for a while. The building is a tomb where culture now banned by the Taliban has been buried: books are hidden by being nailed to the ceiling, posters of artworks peek out from under the whitewash on the walls, and pomegranate, acacia, and aloe vera trees bloom. After the attacks of 9/11, Marcus opens his home to several people who find themselves trapped in the area.
Marcus’s first guest is Lara, a Russian widow who has traveled from St. Petersburg to Afghanistan in order to look for her brother Benedikt, a soldier who had been conscripted into the Soviet Army and hasn’t been heard from for decades. Lara has had a terrible life: complications from an abortion left her barren, and her husband was murdered in front of her. Lara doesn’t know whether Benedikt is alive or dead; all she wants is to find evidence of his fate either way. What we find out is that Benedikt’s story is deeply connected to Zameen’s. During the Soviet invasion, he was part of a group of soldiers who raped Zameen. Scared for her life, Zameen fled into Peshawar, into its “Streets of Storytellers,” where she ended up becoming a prostitute and dying while trying to care for her son.
The next guest is Dunia, a beautiful and young Afghani schoolteacher who is in danger from the Taliban because she dares to be an educated woman—or really, anything other than a baby-making slave. Seeking a few days reprieve from her life, she finds some shelter in Marcus’s house.
To this group is added David Town, a former CIA agent who now lives under his former cover identity as a jeweler. David has been in Afghanistan for twenty-five years and has seen the country go through the Russians, the Taliban, and the Americans: each regime with its own problems. He initially arrived full of idealism but saw that idealism disappear once he understood the facts on the ground. David remembers that it was actually the CIA who first proposed for Afghanis to fight the Soviet troops with suicide bombings—and that the Afghanis reacted with shock, since then, the Koran was interpreted to say that suicide damns a soul to hell. Then, of course, suicide bombings became the Taliban’s favorite weapon, and suicide was remade into glorious religious self-sacrifice. Now, the disillusioned David spends his days mourning the Afghan woman he loved and searching for her young son—who is indeed Marcus’s daughter Zameen.
Into the house next comes Casa, a young Afghani teen pretending to be a day laborer. In reality, he is a Taliban-trained jihadist fighter who needs a place to hide from the local warlords after a failed mission. Casa has been brainwashed by the Taliban from a very young age. He has been taught that women are sub-human creatures created by the devil to tempt men into hell. He has also internalized the idea that Allah wants all people to convert to Islam, either willingly or by force, and that killing non-Muslims is the best way to open the gates of Heaven. Forced to interact with the people in Marcus’s house, Casa questions everything he has been taught. He begins to relate to the people around him as a family—something he has never had—and even starts a tentative love affair with Dunia. Of course, he is the lost grandson that Marcus longs to find—but only the reader will ever realize this fact.
The novel ends with bitterness, betrayal, and violence. Dunia is kidnapped from the house while praying, with the implication that she will be raped and murdered by the Taliban. David tries to keep Casa from following through on his initial suicide-bombing mission—but both die in the explosion nonetheless. Lara returns to Russia without much evidence of her brother and knowing that she is returning to a lonely life. Finally, Marcus remains in Afghanistan, searching for his grandson without knowing that he is dead.