Fleeing a Fictional World of Despots and Drones

Francine Prose in The New York Times:

NadeemHow challenging it can be, these days, to distinguish the dystopian from the naturalistic, to tell the difference between an artist’s darkest imaginings and current events. With its vision of a culture driven mad by technology, the British television series “Black Mirror” resembles 21st-century reality, fancifully tweaked. Mohsin Hamid’s recent novel, “Exit West,” depicts a near future in which the sheer number of people driven from their homes by war has destabilized global civilization. Wallace Shawn’s new play, “Evening at the Talk House,” posits a not-so-distant era in which ordinary citizens facilitate targeted long-distance killings as a way to pay the rent. Now Nadeem Aslam’s powerful and engrossing fifth novel, “The Golden Legend,” introduces us to a world that may at first seem to be a dire and distorted version of our own. In the city Aslam calls Zamana, the rule of law is a distant memory and the social order has thoroughly deteriorated. Aslam’s characters must struggle to survive in a society ruled by mob violence, sectarianism and intolerance, presided over by fanatical despots. Danger lurks everywhere: in the households and neighborhoods controlled by religious extremists and in the sky above, where drones take aim at civilians selected for execution by the American military. This apparent dystopia is, in fact, all too real. The nightmare Aslam so forcefully describes is, he suggests, a portrait of the most turbulent and painful aspects of everyday life in contemporary urban Pakistan.

As the novel opens, books are being transferred from an older library to a new structure that Massud and Nargis — a middle-aged married couple, both celebrated architects — have designed. Because the Islamic texts “contained the names of Allah and Muhammad somewhere, it had been decided that they should be taken from one building to the other by hand. In a truck or cart the risk was too great of something coming into contact with uncleanliness. Nargis and Massud would be walking to the nearby Grand Trunk Road to be part of a human chain, and the books would travel a mile-long succession of hands.” Among the treasures passed in this manner is a ninth-century Abbasid Quran, soon “followed by a book of Mughal paintings of which Rembrandt had made copies in 17th-century Holland.” As the “human chain” performs its reverential ritual, two young men on a motorcycle attack a car that has stopped nearby. Riding in the car is an American, who promptly whips out his gun and fires blindly into the crowd. In the ensuing chaos, Massud is shot and killed. Within days, the grieving widow is visited by a mysterious and clearly sinister “soldier-spy” who informs her that, as a way to help calm the volatile, anti-American mood of the local population, she must declare in court that she has forgiven her husband’s murderer. When Nargis hesitates, her visitor makes it clear that unless she complies she will be made to suffer.

More here.