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Maps for Lost Lovers
Nadeem Aslam


Matt Warman

If Nadeem Aslam had wanted to write a poorer version of Maps for Lost Lovers, one that was rather less subtly enthralling, he might also have wanted to call it 'Culture Wars'. For the Muslim immigrants with whom he is concerned are shown to be at once at war with their England and with themselves, spawning a younger generation that they, apparently, will not allow to adjust adequately to life in a different civilisation.

Aslam's vision is not a happy one, and his painting of it takes much getting used to. The influence of Rushdie, instructive metaphors threatening at times to drown the sense, is almost overpowering, but both reader and author can settle down together after a couple of chapters. That done, there is a plot that drives the action effectively, avoiding irritating contrivance. Shamas and Kaukab, immigrants from Pakistan, had a son living in sin with a neighbouring family's daughter.

Returned ignominiously from a visit to Pakistan, Chanda and Jugnu are now missing and the circumstances around their murder allow us to see the depths of Shamas' marriage. The scared bigotry of his wife has created a family that is so far out of joint that when she makes to stab her daughter Mah-Jabin, it seems only to be a horrifically predictable boiling over of a simmering bitterness.

It may appear strange to suggest that this book's greatest strength is that it allows us to better understand racism and prejudice, rather than to combat it. But it realises, as surely we should, that a community's least integrated fringes feel bewildered and hostile to a country with an utterly different moral code. Thus Kaukab, the real centre of the book, is shown to have utterly failed in bringing up her children, who were the point, she'd say with Allah, of her whole life. And yet she is the only person still alive and basically unchanged by the novel's end. In taking that stance, obviously slightly liberal Aslam doles out to her the greatest punishment - that of being beyond redemption - and yet also leaves her alone with a torturing faith in a God whose 'injustices' she knows she cannot comprehend.

That's what she wishes England - utterly foreign, outside her windows with its lingerie posters - would do. Showing her lying on this bed of nails made by a new country and her personally inadequate faith is instructive and painful to watch. But it is also a sad indictment of an England which, if not rejecting immigrants, too often makes them unwelcome and doesn't realise that their 'hostility' is more likely nervous terror misspoken.

Like the moths of whom Jugnu was so fond, floating about this book, always reminding us of his presence, we should be enthralled by newcomers, understanding and engaging with them in our own inner cities as well as on National Geographic's TV channels. That message may not be revolutionary, but all our understandings of its subtleties would be better off for the enchanting read that is Maps for Lost Lovers. Aslam portrays a family all too real, and his work narrows the yawning gaps between the disparate people that make up our society. Art may have produced better books, but it can scarcely have a higher purpose.

 

 
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