“The Golden Legend,’’ Nadeem Aslam’s stunning new novel of contemporary Pakistan, begins and ends in a large library that, along with books, houses cabin-sized models of the Great Mosque of Córdoba and Hagia Sophia basilica. These narrative bookends signal the prominence of the story’s books and mosques, which are beautiful and dangerous, consolatory and destructive, defaceable and restorable, that is, powerful vessels that become what people make of them. If in Aslam’s Pakistan, mosques and books are too often made terrible, they nevertheless hold out the possibility of hope, even at its slightest.
The library belongs to Massud and Nargis, married contemporary architects who are resolutely attempting to maintain their secular, cosmopolitan values as fundamentalist Islam increases its tight grip on their community and nation. Shopkeepers accept only money inscribed with religious slogans; a boy pursues Massud and Nargis’s neighbor Helen with a knife to see whether “Christians have black blood”; and people’s secrets are proclaimed from mosque loudspeakers at night, with fearsome results.
Massud and Nargis, nominal Muslims, live in a converted paper factory in Badami Bagh, a Christian ghetto in Zamana, a fictionalized version of Lahore. Nineteen-year-old Helen, who is practically their adopted daughter, lives next door with her father, Lily. Behind the paper factory is a small mosque, where the widowed Aysha and her son live with her father, the mosque’s moderate cleric, and her extremist brother-in-law Shakeel. Each of these characters has already suffered from Pakistan’s internecine strife: acts of retributive violence have cost Massud his brother, Lily and Helen their wife and mother, Aysha her husband, and her son his legs.
The violence continues when Massud is killed in a crossfire between an American spy and his attempted assassin (one of the novel’s many incidents based on real-life events), as he and Nargis take part in a human chain that is transporting the Islamic book collection from an old Zamana library to the new one they have designed. Massud’s death soon becomes a link in another chain, as “words like ‘espionage,’ ‘the CIA, ‘the Crusades,’ and ‘Jihad’ would begin to be spoken, connecting Massud’s death with greater and greater things, to the vast sicknesses of the world.”
That chain and those sicknesses affect the other characters far beyond their grief. A military intelligence officer tries to force Nargis to publicly forgive the American spy in accordance with Sharia law, beating her when she refuses. Helen barely escapes a massacre at the secular magazine where she works (see: Charlie Hebdo) and is accused of blasphemy. Nargis and Helen subsequently flee their homes and are joined by Imran, an orphaned Kashmiri young man on the lam from an extremist training camp. Lily and Aysha fall in love, but their secret is discovered and announced from the mosque loudspeaker, and terrible consequences ensue.
The conflicts and brutalities only proliferate. In Pakistan, Muslims persecute Christians, but in adjoining Kashmir, Muslims are persecuted. Extremists hound moderates. The military intelligence agency torments anyone who gets in its way, and the police lash out at whoever they can. Meanwhile, American drones fly above, and American spies wreak havoc on the ground, targeting radical Muslims and partnering with the government, but ultimately answerable only to themselves.
Yet even as things reach their bleakest, which is very bleak indeed, the novel’s characters find moments, a very few of them lasting, of love and connection, sacrifice and support, and Massud and Nargis’s secular vision stubbornly refuses to take its last breath. When the military intelligence officer tears apart Massud’s copy of his father’s book, “That They Might Know Each Other,’’ a 987-page liberal opus on the cross-fertilization of civilizations and religions throughout history, Nargis painstakingly restores it, sewing the tattered pages together with golden thread. When Nargis, Helen, and Imran flee, they take refuge on an overgrown island where Massud and Nargis designed the most beautiful building in Pakistan, a mosque — with a library — initially envisioned as part of a complex, including a church and Hindu temple, that was never completed due to violence. Still, the mosque harbors them . . . for a time.
If “The Golden Legend’’ documents agonizing political and sectarian realities, it is also masterful and compelling fiction, intricately layering symbols and parallels, unspooling its plot in dramatic twists until the very last sentence, and revealing the deep interconnections between the themes of power, principle, love, and loss that underlie those realities.
Since the November election, American writers have anxiously questioned the role and value of fiction in the face of national exigency. “The Golden Legend’’ demonstrates its necessity.
THE GOLDEN LEGEND
By Nadeem Aslam
Knopf, 319 pp., $27.95
Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.’’