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The Wasted Vigil

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The author of Maps for Lost Lovers gives us a new novel—at once lyrical and blistering—about war in our time, told through the lives of five people who come together in post-9/11 Afghanistan.

Marcus, an English doctor whose progressive, outspoken Afghani wife was murdered by the Taliban, opens his home—itself an eerily beautiful monument to his losses—to the others: Lara, from St. Petersburg, looking for evidence of her soldier brother who disappeared decades before during the Soviet invasion; David, an American, a former spy who has seen his ideals turned inside out during his twenty-five years in Afghanistan; Casa, a young Afghani whose hatred of the West plunges him into the depths of zealotry; and James, the Special Forces soldier in whom David sees a dangerous revival of the unquestioning notions of right and wrong that he himself once held.

In mesmerizing prose, Nadeem Aslam reveals the complex ties—of love and desperation, pain and salvation, madness and clarity—that bind the characters. And through their stories he creates a timely and achingly intimate portrait of the “continuation of wars” that shapes our world.

In its radiant language, its depth of feeling, and its unflinching drama, The Wasted Vigil is a luminous work of fiction.

372 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2008

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About the author

Nadeem Aslam

15 books357 followers
Aslam was born in Pakistan in 1966 and moved to Britain at age 14. His family left Pakistan to escape President Zia's regime.

His novel Maps for Lost Lovers, winner of the Kuriyama Prize, took him more than a decade to complete. Aslam has stated that the first chapter alone took five years to complete, and that the following story in the book took seven months to complete before rejecting it. At the end, he kept only one sentence of the seventy pages written.

Aslam's latest novel, The Wasted Vigil, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in September, 2008. It is set in Afghanistan. He traveled to Afghanistan during the writing of the book; but had never visited the country before writing the first draft. On 11th February 2011, it was short-listed for the Warwick Prize For Writing.

His writings have been compared to those by Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Kiran Desai and received an Encore in 2005. He writes his drafts in longhand and prefers extreme isolation when working.

Aslam currently lives in north London.

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Profile Image for Naeem.
388 reviews233 followers
October 31, 2008
Verdict: mixed feelings. Let me sort them out.

A. The principle

If we did not want a story with some, and perhaps lots of, generosity towards those we call “enemy” then we could all settle for W’s version of current world events: we are good; they are evil (or childish, uneducated, uncivilized natives); and, they are motivated to destroy us because they envy us our goodness. So what I want from a novel is to help me understand the inner workings and outer actions of someone who I cannot seem to understand. Thus, one test of a novel is how well the author is able to provide a kind of narrative generosity towards antagonists. This will be my test.

B. The good news

I found this novel thoughtful, important, and I can probably use it for my Afghanistan class. If Kite Runner is like fast food, then this is a multi-course meal made from scratch, served over a long evening with dear friends. Really, there is no comparison between the two. Nadeem Aslam is in a different class; his ambitions are great (but, probably beyond his current reach.)

This is the best novel I have read on post-soviet invasion Afghanistan. Although I do not think it is as powerful as two non-fiction books, Zinky Boys and Unexpected Light. Even Zinky Boys and Unexpected Light do not have the one element that I think makes this book so worthwhile – an extended treatment of the Talibani mind-set. One of the main characters is an orphan who has trained as a Taliban and whose mind and heart Aslam probes as an omniscient narrator. For me, Aslam’s really fails to provide “Casa” with a tangible and fuller biography. Nevertheles, the almost complete absence by any writer in any genre to treat the Taliban as of this earth, as products of world history, makes Aslam’s effort very impressive.

Another main character is a Russian, Lara, whose searches for the whereabouts or remains of her brother – a Soviet soldier. Lara allows Aslam to ground his history back to the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1988). Our world, dominated as it is by the lone super-power, is one in which the only thing that seems to matter is what happened just before and after 9/11/2001 in NYC. Not only Lara, but also the British character Marcus, allow Aslam to extend back past 9/11/01 and thereby weave a longer and thicker history.

The CIA and US special-forces are there in the form of two US characters, David and James. The long dialogues that occur near the end of the book between various combinations of Lara, David, Marcus, David, and James are really the heart of the book for me. In these dialogues, Aslam is able to earn his way to a few beautiful and laser like sentences. It is to his credit that Aslam takes his time to deliver some simple truths uttered by his characters. When the words come out, they do so with great profoundness. Aslam’s timing is precise because has given his readers the full back stories of each main character and helped his readers to understood the full stakes that each character has in the dramatic and tragic events that unfold.

There are astoundingly beautiful sentences here – even if I also think that as a young writer Aslam has yet to understand how to simplify language to achieve full effect. Too often the historical, the literary, and religious references – while giving the book a certain depth and resonance – get in the way of the narrative and in the way of the greater purposes of the book.

C. The bad news

While Pushtoons, Afghanistan, and the Taliban get a voice here, I don’t think that this voice is as generous as it needs to be. On page 319, Aslam writes, “Pull a thread here and you’ll find that it’s attached to the rest of the world.” I am convinced that this idea – an idea that is less about threads or connections and more about a thinker’s/writer’s generosity – explains why it took him 8 years to write this book. I have heard that he wrote book-length biographies of each of his main characters. He wanted to give each of them a history, a context, a motivation that drives their quest. His thorough construction of characters allows him to raise a point on one page and then to wait a hundred pages to raise it again. So intricately woven together are his threads.

His main characters – Marcus, Lara, David, and Zameen (a Brit, a Russian, a USer, and a mix of Brit and Afghan)—each have this multifaceted density. Another set of characters are given some robustness but they are not as tightly spun. These include Qatrina, Dunia, and Casa (all Afghans). Two more characters, are woven in to the story but have nearly no threads to which they are “attached to the rest of the world.” These are the two Afghan “warlords” – Gul Rasool and Nabi Khan – leaders of their family/clan who have been enemies for more than 50 years and who serve as the shorthand for W’s evil in this book.

Aslam, in my reading, is able to generate extraordinary generosity for Marcus, Lara, David, and Zameen; some for Qatrina, Dunia, Casa, and James; and almost nothing for Gul Rasool and Nabi Khan. In the Kite Runner, Hosseini inability to un-knot the Taliban, make the Taliban character a bedrock, a dead-end of the analysis. So also here, Aslam’s inability to provide a meaningful and generous story to the motivations of Gul Rasool and Nabi Khan turn characters into caricatures. Their lives are bed-rocked, dead-ended, and not “attached to the rest of the world.” (Much to his credit, Aslam tries to give their deadly feuding a context but this effort feels utterly strained to me and comes across as an afterthought.)

There are other problems with the book. For example: (1) I found some of his literary and historical references to be a little pretentious and I therefore allowed myself to glaze over such passages. (2) There are some rather pronounced plot problems near the end of the book having to do with how Casa rejoins the original plan. (3) The starched and unconvincing words that Aslam puts in James’s mouth at the end of the book. (4) Most of the graphic violence is at the hands of Afghans. These scenes are depicted with visceral, concrete detail whereas the violence of the Soviets and the USA is made abstract via plane "bombings." The bombings are conveyed with large, sweeping brushstroke; they cannot and do not move the reader in the same manner. (5) All the major non-Afghan characters (but none of the major Afghan characters) are adults; wisdom often flows from Marcus and sometimes from Lara but never from an Afghan character. Aslam's selection of the wise quietly tells us more about how he regards his fellow south-Asians than his erudite forays into the history, poetry, and culture of these lands.

But these problems are perhaps minor, fixable, and easily forgivable given the vast ambition of the tableau.

The central problem is, in my view, an unwillingness or an inability, ultimately to act upon the wisdom that Aslam’s writing reveals: he is not always able to show that when we “pull a thread…it is attached to the rest of the world. As I said, Gul Rasool and Nabi Khan are thread ends.

D. Anticipating the criticism

If generosity to antagonists is a principle by which we can evaluate a world-view or a novel, then at one end of the continuum, we have W’s view of the world – a view that is plain, simple, and sharp but utterly vapid. The message here is “We are of this world and they are not.” Further towards the pole of generosity but still too close to W’s view is Hosseini’s Kite Runner. Closer to the pole of generosity, but still not near enough, is this novel by Aslam.

If this novel leaves me wanting can I provide an example of something with greater generosity, one in which all the threads are connected to each other and the rest of the world?

I would offer Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits as an example. The antagonist is the patriarch Esteban Trueba. He is given a full story and is thoroughly motivated as a fully rounded human being. Allende never pulls her punches as she describes how Trueba destroys the lives of the peasants he treats as no more than slaves and servants. And yet, we come to know Trueba well, we are allowed to empathize with his arrogance, with the manner of his self-deception, with the power he feels as he squeezes out the lives of other human beings, and with the potential justification for his beliefs. Indeed, so great is Allende’s desire to give equal time to the man she is trying to un-knot that in various parts of the book, Trueba erupts into Allende’s novel to tell the story in his own voice. Allende submits to the Trueba within her and allows him his own tone, words, and voice. I think of this as full generosity to the antagonist and the standard that has to be met for a great novel. It is not the only standard, but without this quality, fiction, in my view, does not live up to its greater purpose.

Here are some other novels that I think live up to this standard:

Bridge on the Drina
Sorrow of War
Milagro Beanfield War
Cities of Salt
The Pickup
Season of Migration to the North

Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,509 followers
November 13, 2014
A lost review of mine rediscovered
Satisfying on many levels. Balances love vs. war, trust vs. despair, chaos vs. grounding in everyday beauty of the moment. Elucidates the many threads to the problems of Afghanistan while keeping alive 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. A surprise in the author's approach is that Afghan people are largely not rendered directly, but only through foreign characters. These include a Brit immigrant, Marcus, a an ex-CIA operative, and a Russian woman, all concerned with finding traces of a lost family member or loved one as part of the emergent post-9/11 war or the earlier Russian one. The recent killing of the Brit's Afghan wife by the Taliban looms large as the vitality of her memory heralds a template for resilience while the plotting of violent action by a new youthful convert to jihad points to a continued cycle of darkness. The Buddhist heritage of the country is highlighted by the cover shot of a sleeping Buddha, which Marcus defiantly preserves in secret. The theme of waiting for an awakening is a great overlay and structure for this story which moved me by its interlacing of human hopes and tragedies.
Profile Image for Naveed Qazi.
Author 7 books38 followers
July 26, 2022
How often do we hear about writers who put decade long efforts to write fiction, working in secluded cottages without any conscience of seasons, weather, guilds and society? Rarely. Nadeem Aslam fits that genre. He has tirelessly done menial jobs to earn a living and to create an isolation just to write better books, to dive deep into imagination. He writes by blackening out his windows, sleeps on the floor and makes books his pillows, and then continues to write even more on prize money. A devouring passion to write, clearly visible in his works. His each drafted word seems so deeply considered, as if he is plucking the best fruits out of a blossomed orchard - every time he tries to write. Nadeem is not only a writer, but he is also an artist, a poet.

The Wasted Vigil is a treasure narrative. As if it derives charms of war poetry by Vasko Popa. The language is beautiful but the content, coerced by violence. Some passages strike you with a reading experience never felt before. It is a tender ballad to Afghanistan, to its people, and a trenchant portrayal of barbarity. A glory of verbal prowess.

Poignant. Graphic. Pure poetry.

The book speaks of forlorn Afghanistan, where natives are victims of catastrophes - of warfare, religious zealotry, folklores, social choas and cultural subjection, portraying shattered families, exiles for love and life and half ruined towns. It's a story primarily based in Usha, which depicts the whole ill fortune of Afghanistan - a graveyard of stagnated dreams, where misery chants captivity, where innocence is entrapped. A land of torn souls - a cursed miniature. It speaks of such a violence which simply demand guts to read. It speaks of amputations, famines forcing spit eating, maggot riddled flesh, gores and decaying corpses. Definitely not for the fainthearted.

The Wasted Vigil is not an easy read. It takes time to adapt to Nadeem Aslam's penning style. The narrative keeps on changing, which may confuse, but it engrosses the readers with erudite knowledge of world history, world politics and world culture - lines about Al Kindi, army of Alexander, Armenian gem merchants, Sultan Ghazni, Battle of Trench, Caesar, Neil Arm Strong, Ferdowsi, CIA, Koran, Buddha, Napoleon, Islamic Spain, jungles of Vietnam, Leech Lake massacre, Greek tragedies, Hindu deities, poets, paintings, fruit pulp panaceas, perfume making, Soviet life, Saladin. It contains a rich lyrical grace which invokes both worlds, affixed by an imagination drenched in symbolism.

The novel is an adventure of modern day Afghanistan.It's distinct characters speak in-depth. Marcus Caldwell, a pseudo Muslim convert, who works in a perfume factory, near Tora Bora mountains. His house is near a haunted lake, where books are nailed to ceilings and it is a home filled with art surrounding pomegranate, acacia and aloe vera trees. His wife, Qatrina, a healer, an artist, is murdered by Taliban. Lara, a Russian widow, who has journeyed into Afghanistan, and is living with Marcus, to search for her missing brother. Caldwell's daughter, Zameen, raped by a mocked Soviet soldier, Lara's brother - Benedikt, who for the fear of her life, crosses into Peshawar, into its 'Streets of Storytellers,' and prostitutes to keep her baby out of a malady. Crude warlords - Gul Rasool and Nabi Khan. David, a former CIA operative. Dunia, a young school teacher. Casa, an unrelenting Jehadi. James Palantine, an aware American soldier. All these characters are skillfully interlinked in the narrative by a reason of fate- they're lives trying to find a meaning in a devastated world.

The Wasted Vigil not only churns affliction but it is also provocative. There are even passages which may tease conservative Islamists: there are disapprovals against religious republics, references of strong anti feminism from Caliph Umar and Caliph Ali. Forbidding distractions of a believer by a woman. Intolerances in the Islamic history. A rape by a nomad after humbling in prayer. Controversial citations of Islamic traditions and Koran - is Nadeem trying to mock the essence of religion? Is he mystifying scriptures, or is he trying to question the devotion of people towards true faith? All these sensitive matters are carefully accounted which evoke a debate and forces the readers towards earnest studies into religion.

The Wasted Vigil is a dainty beauty woven out of a tragedy. Each word should be relished, celebrated. You just wish to dwell in the lines and feel reluctant to flip the next page. That's the beauty of The Wasted Vigil. It won't be an exaggeration to compare or even praise it to be par as The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns. Infact, the impression and intensity, which Nadeem Aslam leaves, is victor. Strongly recommended to readers who love superior artwork in writing. It's evocative and is filled with a strong emotional impact.

War literature at its riveting best.
Profile Image for W.
1,185 reviews4 followers
January 30, 2021
Nadeem Aslam's writing style had grated on my nerves when I read his book,Maps for Lost Lovers. But I already had The Wasted Vigil with me,so I tried to read it too.

Again,the prose was almost painful to read.Consider this passage :
"The grandson of a watchsmith,he appeals for leniency from the god who decrees the point of no return.The moment when the arrow leaves the bow,..the moment when poetic inspiration begins".
Or another one :
"The pomegrenate was on a table.She slit it open now.The outer layer of scarlet seeds had been warmed by the flames.The temperature of menstrual blood just emerged from a man's body".

Passages like this,of which there is no shortage in this book,gave me a headache.I kept rolling my eyes.
The publisher describes such prose as luminous or radiant.For me,it's just pretentious drivel.

Add to that the fact that the subject matter is pretty bleak.It is after all,about Afghanistan's ancient and modern history,a country known for little else but war and turmoil.

The reader is treated to an amputation and a stoning and plenty of violence,heading towards an unhappy ending.

There are writers like Khalid Hosseini and Nadia Hashimi who can write spell binding tales set amidst Afghanistan's turmoil.I'd read them any day over this painful book.

Profile Image for Sana.
109 reviews63 followers
August 4, 2010
I was expecting the usual fare when I picked up this novel set in Afghanistan, but what I wasn't expecting was to find the author repeatedly misquoting from the Quran. For most of the story, I thought he was just trying to show the reader the jihadist mindset and the erroneous light in which they hijack certain verses from the Quran to further their cause. But at no point did he clarify this.

Besides misquoting, he also made his characters dish out statements like, "Islam at its core does not believe in the study of science" and "The cause of destruction of Afghanistan she said to me towards the end of her life, is the character and society of the Afghans, of Islam" and also attributed statements to the Prophet which have been deemed by a majority of Muslim scholars as false.

And then, the only "good" Afghans in this story are the ones portrayed as "Westernized." The rest are made up of an assortment of crude, illiterate, egoistic, and chauvinistic characters.

At times his writing is brilliant but other than that this book has nothing else to offer.
Profile Image for Anum Shaharyar.
97 reviews433 followers
March 30, 2023
“This is among the few things that can be said about love with any confidence. It is small enough to be contained within the heart but, pulled thin, it would drape the entire world.”

The Wasted Vigil is the type of book I felt blown away by while reading, even though two months down the line not only will I not remember why I was so amazed, I probably won’t even remember what it was about. This happens with books that might not emotionally change me, but are so well-written or say something so interesting that I’m forced to take a momentary pause to just appreciate the idea, or the emotion, or the placement of words. In fact it used to happen so regularly that when making a list of my top ten favourite books of the year to share with my best friend, we started making two separate lists: one for books that we felt emotional about, and another for books that might not connect with us but were so smart, or spoke from such a completely new perspective that we wanted to shove the book at the other person and say, ‘Read it so we can discuss!”

This is the kind of book I want to read a smart analysis of, because there’s a lot of material in here to discuss. In all honesty, most books about war and Afghanistan and America pack lots of content worth poring over, even if it’s just to see whether the representation is valid or if the opinions are skewed. And it’s entirely possible that there’s a lot of problematic content within this book, but I enjoyed it, so until someone disabuses me of that opinion, I shall carry on with that sentiment.

This country was one of the greatest tragedies of the age. Torn to pieces by the man hands of war, by the various hatreds and failings of the world. Two million deaths over the past quarter-century.

Primarily, this book is about suffering, and that too of a very specific type of suffering: that caused by war. Even though the narrative focuses more on the intricate relationships between our multiple protagonists, almost all the relationships and by extension the actions and reactions of all our characters are guided by the fact that they are present in Afghanistan in a horrible moment of time for the country.

David had heard the truck explode from a mile away. Elsewhere he would have thought it was thunder, but in this country he knew what it was, what it had to be.

What’s interesting (or, one could argue, problematic) is that for a major part of this book we view the war through the eyes of foreigners, even if some of them have been in Afghanistan for a while. Marcus, an aged widower from Britain and one of the focal points of this story, has been living in Afghanistan for ages, a Muslim convert who lost both his wife Qatrina as well as his daughter Zameen to the patriarchal horrors of brutality. Our narrative starts when a Russian woman named Lara arrives from Saint Petersburg looking for her soldier brother who disappeared during the Soviet invasion. It is in looking for her brother, and in the connections that slowly spool open as the writing progresses, that we see the true mastery of Nadeem Aslam. Even though he takes his sweet time drawing out the past and present and how it all connects, and one could easily get confused between what had happened to which individual character out of the multiple important ones in this story, I couldn’t help but keep reading, even when I had to flip back to check which character we were actually talking about.

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

Each character that gets introduced eventually finds their way into Marcus and Lara’s story, from American ex-spy David to young jihadist Casa, or from local schoolteacher Dunia to the Special Forces soldier James. All of them are part of a wider story of which they form intersecting points, overlapping in sometimes good and mostly bad ways. But what Nadeem Aslam does really well is to at least try to give each character some complexity.

Of course, the book has lots of things to say about religion and oppression and basic human cruelty, most of which was horrible and depressing. Religion clearly doesn’t resonate with Aslam, who uses it mainly to explain how acts of brutality are justified by a large number of people. Although one could argue that this book is based in an era where the Taliban abused religion to carry out their strongest perversions, surely a narrative which can’t provide a nuanced look from all angles is weak in certain aspects? At any rate, I’m sure that there are lots of people out there who are smarter, more informed, and better at vocalizing their opinions than me on the intricacies of representation within this book. I’d be willing to have a smart discussion about this, and am most certainly open to changing my opinion about the book itself, but until then I’ll have to make do with my sleep deprived, read-it-in-chunks version of a review.

A public spectacle after the Friday prayers, the stoning of a sixty-one-year-old adulteress. A rain of bricks and rocks, her punishment for living in sin, the thirty-nine-year marriage to Marcus void in the eyes of the Taliban because the ceremony had been conducted by a female. A microphone had been placed close to her for her screams to be heard clearly by everyone.

What this story does really well though is to stress, again and again, on how senseless and full of malice war can be. All the characters involved are not only flawed, they are also in trouble, or have been in trouble, or have suffered a sort of meaningless indignity in a fight that they didn’t even start. I’d be revealing too many spoilers if I mentioned them here, but suffice is to say that Aslam takes what is a larger narrative and uses a very small one to give it depth and life. Things that happened on a global scale are suddenly personal, and described well enough to make it all seem so very real.

“The Cold War was cold only for the rich and privileged places of the planet.”

It’s true that the book makes liberal references to other stories, to literature that I haven’t read and myths that I don’t know of. But unlike other instances where I might have gotten irritated by this constant allusion to things I didn’t understand, for some reason within this story it felt fine. Maybe because it was all done so naturally, and because with every reference I didn’t feel the need to a google search, but the mention of unknown literature didn’t feel as uncomfortable as it could have.

Both sides in Homer’s war, when they arrive to collect their dead from the battlefield, weep freely in complete sight of each other. Sick at heart. This is what Marcus wants, the tears of one side fully visible to the other.

The only very visible issue with this book was that the ending was quite abrupt. Usually I prefer a clean, proper ending which grants me closure and helps me let go of the characters so that there’s a smooth transition to my next book. But over here a lot of things feel like they were wrapped up hastily, or like the author suddenly realized he was running way past his designated word limit and tried to finish it all up quickly. Which might be one of the reasons why I dropped it from a five to a four star rating.

Overall though, I still enjoyed it pretty thoroughly. I might have read it in fits and bursts, and I probably won’t read it again, but in terms of recommendations, I’d suggest that everyone give this a go, at least once. Worth the read.


I review Pakistani Fiction, and talk about Pakistani fiction, and want to talk to people who like to talk about fiction (Pakistani and otherwise, take your pick.) To read more reviews or just contact me so you can talk about books, check out my Blog or follow me on Twitter!


I'm not even sure what I liked about this book. This is going to be one confused review.

Profile Image for Calzean.
2,597 reviews1 follower
October 11, 2018
There's a lot of fine writing mixed up with the history of Afghanistan, America's wars in the Middle East/Asia and a bit of a soap opera. No one comes out well here. There is both respect and criticism of Islamic fundamentalism, the Afghan people, England/Russia/America and their invasions of the country and of neighbouring Pakistan.
It was a bit difficult at times to follow who was in a scene, as times and places seem to flip and flop between paragraphs. But the writing matched the story, the tone was always bleak, there's not a lot of hope and it highlights man's greed for power and riches.
Profile Image for Jibran.
224 reviews656 followers
July 14, 2016
This novel is true to its title. It is just that: a wasted vigil.

Nadeem Aslam is a decent prose stylist but I do not understand what evil overpowered him when he was writing this novel. Not only the story and the characters sound false, heavily affected, full of improbable happenings in the war-torn terrain of Afghanistan, it is heavily borrowed from Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. The writing style is a bad imitation of Ondaatje without Mr Aslam acknowledging the influence in any of his interviews I have seen. So much so that even a central character, David, is taken directly from Ondaatje's Italy and placed in Aslam's Afghanistan.

Abandoned half-way through.
61 reviews5 followers
January 13, 2016
One of the most remarkable books I've ever read. It is both deeply poetic and painfully violent; sympathetic and tragic; enlightening and maddening. The FEEL of it remains with me still. I was amazed at how well the author created sympathy for characters with conflicting perspectives, enabling the reader to understand why each felt justified in his position, while showing with the most subtle irony just how tragic their conflict is: how unknowingly entwined they all are, like the whole of humanity (characters represent a range of cultures). The clues are small and easily missed; it is a book that needs to be carefully read. And while the plot/action carries the reader through quite powerfully, there's also a poetic, almost dreamy quality to the writing.
One of the settings, a house beside a tranquil lake, is almost another character in itself. Those who live there struggle to maintain an oasis of tolerance amid the surrounding violence, against what seems an insurmountable tide. All too relevant to our current political and religious conflicts, as well as very beautifully and masterfully written.
Profile Image for Taste_in_Books.
124 reviews30 followers
March 13, 2023
A book I had forgotten I had previously read . I realised only when I came across a highlighted passage. The fact that I had totally forgotten it made me reread the whole thing. I belueve the reason I'd forgotten was that it's a dense book. Beautiful in some parts and stale in others. It's a story of spies during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and post 9/11 Afghanistan. An old man who lost his daughter in the first war and wife in the latter. An american spy who has seen both wartimes. A young afghani terrorist who may or may not be the missing grandson of the old man. All three men end up living in the same house until the final showdown.

Aslam writes this theological political narrative with affective albeit heavy prose. Time and again he highlights how young muslims both from Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan are brainwashed with convoluted concepts and ideas of Islam in order to get them to hate the West and commit horrible crimes. How young innocent human beings are caught in the web of deceit. How demading the life of a spy is.

I just wish the author had made it more clear for the non muslim reader that most of the sayings he relates from Quran or concepts he presents are only in the terrorist's brainwashed head and not actually part of the teachings of Islam.
Profile Image for Dennis.
814 reviews32 followers
January 20, 2023
If you have read something of the situation in Afghanistan – wars, Taliban, Al-Qaeda – in the books by Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, And the Mountains Echoed) and felt something of the horror there in the last 50 years or so, prepare yourself before reading this book because it makes those look like Spielberg. In the first 50 pages, we have already been introduced a British doctor who was born and has lived almost his whole life there; he’s now missing one hand, his wife was stoned to death, his daughter missing (and probably dead) and he has several guests with stories to tell. They all are waiting for something which they know deep inside will either be in vain or bring even worse consequences for them. In addition, unlike the Hosseini books, this includes the responsibilities of Western nations and the Soviet Union in all this, and the effects of their interventions.

If I had to choose a term to describe this book, it would be “poetically brutal.” Reading some of the comments, it’s clear that not everyone found the writing so poetic but to each their own. (And I know that mentioning menstrual blood for some is disqualifyingly “icky.”) Not everyone clicks into the same use of language. Furthermore, there is a young man, trained and prepared for suicidal terrorism from early childhood and working for one of the warlords, who frequently misquotes the Koran (or so I gather) because he’s been taught a lot of twisted, out-of-context rhetoric designed to justify whatever actions he takes.

Along with the terrorist-in-waiting, there’s a Russian woman looking for information about her soldier brother, who’s probably dead although under what circumstances, no one knows. The doctor is looking for his daughter, or some information about her, and her son, his grandson. Her ex-lover, a purported gems dealer (who is not the boy’s father), is also looking but may have access to circles that the doctor doesn’t. There’s also the question of who IS the boy’s father. In the end, these are all questions for which they and the reader are waiting for positive answers, but we all know will not have happy answers, and when we find out, it’s worse than we imagined. It’s a wasted vigil for answers we’d be better off not knowing, and where it can easily all end badly.

The author is not Afghani but Pakistani and since the majority of the action takes place on the nebulous border between the two countries, he has some knowledge of the situation. It’s a recommendable book, both for its beauty and for its honesty, but you have to be prepared that just like the continuing conflict, there is nothing hopeful or optimistic in it, just a wish for closure for future generations.
Profile Image for Sana Abdulla.
462 reviews17 followers
March 9, 2021
This book was a chore to read, I read a good bit everyday, when I picked it up I would blissfully forget a lot of the c... I read the day before. It seemed to me like a badly choreographed dance, with characters that are supposed to be astonishing but are just creepy.
It is an example of a writer ingratiating himself to the western reader. Since the story takes place in Afghanistan, atrocities by the taliban and power hungry warlords were expected, but the writer went further by making up stories of religious history that are false to show Islam in a bad light, while the only good people were British or American. I can quote lots of hate inciting bits from this awful book. There are more faults with this novel than I have time to write about, I didn't like it is an understatement.
Profile Image for Molly.
380 reviews18 followers
December 11, 2008
In case you missed the Kite Flyer, Bookseller from Kabul and so forth, Afghanistan is not a place you want to be, ever, and after reading this I forgot about the mice in the laundry room, the possums in the roof, and the rising cost of organic strawberries.
I loved this book for its fantastic smell imagery, it is a rare sensual experience to smell blood, sandalwood, pomengrenates in the same paragraph. Also, there are several parts of the book that are so gruesome that I am still shuddering weeks after reading it.
Profile Image for Mai Laakso.
1,156 reviews55 followers
September 23, 2016
Pakistanilaissyntyinen Lontoossa asuva kirjailija Nadeem Aslam kirjoittaa kolmannessa teoksessaan Elävältä haudatut nykyajan sodista, sodista joita käydään Afganistanissa. Kauniit unikot kirjan kannessa kuvaavat sitä, millä keinoin sotaa rahoitetaan, huumeilla, jota saadaan unikoista. Afganistan on ollut Neuvostoliiton, Talebanien ja USAn taistelukenttä, jota kirjassa käydään läpi samalla, kun tarinan henkilöt käyvät vuoropuhelua omien muistojensa ja tarkoitusperiensä kanssa.
Olen aiemmin lukenut Aslamin Sokean miehen puutarhan, joka kuvasi myös Afganistanissa kauan kestänyttä sotatilaa. Sokean miehen puutarha oli rakkauskertomus, mutta myös kolmiodraama sodan keskellä. Elävältä haudatut kuvaa myös ihastumisia, mutta tällä kertaa voimakkain teema on kadonneiden läheisten etsintä. Aslamin tyyli ei ole osoitteleva, vaan hän tuo selkeästi esille jokaisen osapuolen osallisuuden hirmutekoihin ihmisyyttä, tasa-arvoa ja ihmisoikeuksia vastaan. Hänelle on tyypillistä luoda kauneutta rumuuden keskelle.
Profile Image for Laurie Neighbors.
201 reviews128 followers
January 18, 2014
As I was reading this novel, I was thinking of the recent "psychological breakthrough" distributed around the internet that reading novels increases empathy. I was also thinking of a sociology undergraduate class I helped teach several years ago that asked the students to analyze attitudes, beliefs, and facts about the "US War on Terror." The books we assigned were heavy for undergrads -- Blow Back by Chalmers Johnson, Blood and Oil by Michael Klare, The Occupation by Patrick Cockburn, Tinderbox by Stephen Zune, Dying to Win by Robert Pape, Bin Laden, Islam and America's New War on Terrorism by As ad AbuKhalil (this one had one of our students detained at LAX when she took it on the plane to do her homework), War and Peace in the Middle East by Avi Shlaim. Our students -- who had self-selected into the course knowing its political framework -- completed the course with a treasure chest of knowledge and argumentative strategies for pushing back on the dominant paradigm. But they would have also learned so much more, on an additional level, by reading The Wasted Vigil. Perhaps with more nuance and complexity, and definitely more empathy. Nadeem Aslam is so specifically adept at building nuance and empathy within what has become a bioppositional approach to understanding fundamentalism. I appreciate it here as I did in Maps for Lost Lovers. An emotional investment to read, for certain, but the internet does proclaim that making such investments is a good idea, so it must be true ...
Profile Image for Snow White.
162 reviews
April 4, 2018
A beautifully written story in which the characters themselves are metaphores for the modern history of Afghanistan. I loved everything about it. It was harsh, compelling, and intricately beautiful at the same time. A favourite.
Profile Image for Amina.
94 reviews6 followers
August 8, 2012
How can you not fall in love with a story which is set in a house where books are nailed to the ceiling and great works of art peep through the whitewash. The five characters whose lives intersect in this strange house in post 9/11 war torn Afghanistan are Marcus, an English expat who was married to an outspoken Afghani doctor; David, a former American spy, who has seen Afghanistan through the Russians, the Taliban, and the Americans; Lara from St. Petersburg looking for her brother, a Russian soldier; Casa, a young Afghani zealot and James an American soldier in the Special Forces. Its mesmerizing, a brilliant read.

“How keen everyone is to make this world their home forgetting its impermanence It's like trying to see and name constellations in a fireworks display.”

“The bullet that has hit us Muslims today left the gun centuries ago when we let the clergy decide that knowledge and education were not important.”
787 reviews127 followers
August 6, 2010
As I came to the last two chapters of this book, I read as slow as possible to delay finishing it. The story is crafted in the most entralling ways. Also, I cannot say in words how beautiful the writing is. The author has used English words in ways that are magical and precise. I am grateful and touched by how this book transported me to experiences I feared and knew little of. I am also extremely appreciative of how Aslam has taught me about and through the varied perspectives. Several months since I finished this book, I am still gladly haunted by it. In fact, I plan on re-reading it soon.
Profile Image for Claire Zoghb.
Author 3 books2 followers
February 16, 2009
I am only halfway through this book -- and I hope it never ends. I am savoring every word, every image, every scent...
Profile Image for Bibliophile.
760 reviews39 followers
November 19, 2009
A Russian woman, Lara; two Americans, David and James; and a young Afghan jihadi nicknamed Casa converge on the rural home of Marcus, English expatriate living on the shores of a lake in rural Afghanistan near the Tora Bora caves where the US forces failed to capture Osama bin Laden. The five are linked by known and unknown bonds of blood and friendship. Lara is trying to find out what happened to her brother who disappeared when he was serving in Afghanistan the Soviet Army in the 1980s; Marcus has lost his wife and his daughter and his hand to war and to the Taliban's brutal regime; David, who was once a spy, has lost the Afghan woman he loved and is still searching for her young son; and Casa and James mirror each other in their certainty of their own righteousness.

I loved Nadeem Aslam's first novel, Maps for Lost Lovers, which was powerful, beautiful and moving, and so I was looking forward to The Wasted Vigil. Having read it though, I feel that it was perhaps my time that was wasted, rather than the vigil of the title.

First of all, this is one incredibly depressing book. Now, I certainly was not expecting a novel about contemporary Afghanistan to be very cheerful, but The Wasted Vigil makes The Kite-Runner seem like Disney cartoon. Its catalogue of the relentless brutality of which human beings seem so terribly capable was certainly memorable: there are stomach-churning images that I wish I could forget, but I'm afraid I'm stuck with them! (To be fair, there are also images of great vividness and beauty scattered throughout the book, such as the idea of a house whose ceilings are made of books, but these are far less common than the horrible things that happen to almost everyone in the book.) I'm also quite certain that Aslam did his research and probably every one of the awful things he documents happened to someone (although I did begin to wonder at their all happening to members of the same family.)

But it's not the relentless cruelty of almost everyone in a position of power that made me not like the book very much. It's more that I felt Aslam was trying too hard to present his vision of what was wrong with Afghanistan (currently) and therefore, he couldn't let his characters just be; they were all representatives of something or other and they all had to make speeches to present a given attitude (and most of the women except Lara were only glimpsed through other people's memories of them, which ... I guess that's a metaphor for the veils that Afghan women are forced to wear, to hide who they really are, but it did make their sufferings more distant and less vivid than those of the men. They don't have voices even in death, it seems.)

Also, the characters mostly sounded very similar to one another (so much so that I sometimes had to go back and figure out from quotation marks who was talking when two characters were having a conversation) and Aslam's "Americans" sounded far more like Englishmen than like any American I've ever known. (Does anyone in the US say "get shut of ..." as opposed to "get rid of"? I've never met that person! Or the fact that David refers to "the northern United States" - err, he'd probably say "the Northeast" or the "Northwest" or something like that, you know?) So although the catalogue of horrors suffered by various individuals connected to our main characters and by the main characters themselves was indeed gruesome, I also felt less drawn into their fates, because they never seemed like real people.

Nadeem Aslam is an immensely talented writer, and it does seem that he put a lot of heart and soul into The Wasted Vigil but ultimately, this isn't nearly as good as his first novel.

Profile Image for Yasir.
100 reviews
May 14, 2022
The Wasted Vigil boasts all the qualities of a good literary fiction: well researched, great pacing and writing style, fleshed out characters and balanced narrative, which all come together to give the reader a memorable reading experience, but sadly this was not the case with this book. Here I found all these qualities immodestly overwhelming each other. Out of nowhere there are historical anecdotes and pretentious literary references (mind you, I definitely love these, but to an extent) and in a number that seemed to disturb the flow of the story. They felt like footnotes wrenched from the foot of the chapters and shoved in between the paragraphs (more like gutnotes? bellynotes? Ha!) Not only that, almost on every third page there are references of Hadiths half of which aren't even authentic and misquotations from Quran, which I believe was a necessary step to portray the mindset of a terrorist, as to how they misinterpret the book to further their own agenda, but again it's done so extensively that I felt the voice of the author was interfering with the voice of the character and wrestling to have its own say. If you ever want to see an author unhesitatingly interrupt their own book, pick up The Wasted Vigil. As with the story, I could not understand what was tried to achieve here. From start to finish I could not sympathize with the characters, the attempt to tragedize them felt deliberate, more so since the characters are white in the setting of Afghanistan, and albeit having been given all the complexities to render them as deep, and the native Afghani as outright barbaric, they still felt like cardboard cutouts to me. Even by the end I was trying to figure out who was who and distinguish between their pasts which I'd tangled up in the process. This is solely written to cater the fantasy of erudite Western audience who'd like to see themselves as victims in a war torn country. It is evident in the author's manner of displaying Asian culture: apologetic and standoffish.
The things I liked about this book was its writing style and its structure. The Wasted Vigil gives a panoramic view of Afghanistan, from the Soviet War to the fall of Taliban, spanning over half a century. It's lush in detail, peppered with torpid descriptions that require your full attention, and profound, breathtakingng sentences. There's intricacy to the book's structure, a certain thing said earlier occuring later in the book at the perfect time to expand the meaning. I personally feel the author set out with a grand ambition but couldn't quite reach it. As a writer though Aslam has great skills, and I'd love to try at least one more book of his. 2.7/5 stars.
36 reviews
May 9, 2017
It felt as if I was not only reading it, but that I was experiencing it, and it was quite simply the most moving novel I have ever experienced. To set the major portion of the story in a house dedicated to a celebration of the five senses was altogether fitting and the author's brilliant, poetic style brought both that house and the story itself alive.

I saw a piece of myself in each of the characters, despite never having been placed in the heart-wrenching experiences they were in, and came to realize more than ever the "commonalities" of each human life. I was drawn to the author's illustrations of the human condition, the beauty of simplicity vs. the horror of complication, and came away with a deeper understanding that the world's religions are really all light beams from one sun shining through the different windows of a common house.
Profile Image for Ernest.
27 reviews
March 12, 2009
I have mixed feelings. The author writes beautifully, but I thought it was a bit too detailed and descriptive at times. I found myself reading pages over again to understand what the author was trying to convey in several situations. Much of the plot is inferred through symbolism, which makes it unique but somewhat difficult at times.

Ultimately, I am glad that I read the story. I felt that I learned a great deal about Afghanistan, and was offered a glimpse into the minds of both extremes (CIA operative vs Islamic fundamentalist). In the end, it was a worthy and interesting journey into Afghanistan's history.
Profile Image for Paola.
145 reviews34 followers
January 10, 2016
The plot is an excuse to portray a people and a land ravaged by war. It reads very well, although every so often there are some excessively "didactic" passages, where the author slips into lecturing the reader. And the characters are mostly unidimensional - either thoroughly good, or thoroughly bad, or thoroughly manipulated, or thoroughly braved, or thoroughly evil... yout get the gist. Altogether however they come together to draw a very vivid picture of the hopelessness of the lives too many have been forced to live, with some thoroughly gut-wrenching episodes for which the word "atrocity" sounds like a euphemism. Cannot say it was a pleasant read, but very interesting and flowing.
Profile Image for Mikayla.
245 reviews1 follower
April 26, 2021
Quite honestly one of the most depressing books I've ever read, not a single happy moment in it. I also am struggling to contend with the depictions of war, violence, and gore...they were, I am sure, real and definitely happened in the various struggled of the wars in and over Afghanistan for many decades but it still made my stomach roll. I think ignorance and miseducation can be utilized by bad people for bad things, but the absolute lack of redemptive qualities for the Afhanians or the Soviets here makes me think the moral of the story is that everyone, everywhere, are all horrible people.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,737 reviews1,469 followers
July 10, 2009
Do the goals ever justify the means?

A beautifully written book, but very hard to read. So very hard to stomach.
Profile Image for Walter Sylesh.
35 reviews7 followers
December 29, 2022
The first novel I picked up in years. Of course, I stuck to my preferred theme of historical fiction in this gripping tale of a few folk involved in the century-long Afghan turmoil. Very textured and intense writing that shifts between complex characters, their thoughts, motivations set in the midst of a once colorful culture now decaying after decades of war. Some of the best and worst human impulses and motivation is explored here.

The message and the ending was very conflicting for me and I feel sometimes the author gets lost so much in the details that it's hard to keep a steady focus on the plot.

This book can offer a good perspective on the actual motivations of all sides of the War - the British, the Soviets, the Afghan Warlords, the Fundamentalists and the Americans. The exploration takes place through the meeting of people looking for something or someone and seeking to make amends for their past. But the needless complexity and the sometimes abstruse prose brings this down a notch for me.

Good book to explore shades of morality and introspect on things we take for granted today.
Profile Image for Priya.
443 reviews
May 1, 2022
Why not 5 stars? Can a book be overpopulated by good things? That’s kind of where The Wasted Vigil went wrong for me. The deep fleshed out characters, the metaphors, the lyrical writing, the ideas supported by facts, the references; it was all too much for the size of the story. An ambitious novel that should have been longer or edited in scope, I don’t know which.
Profile Image for Abdul.
97 reviews9 followers
March 8, 2018
I believe that some parts of history can be understood only in the language of fiction. This was the first book that helped me understand the First Afghan War (1979-1987) through the prism of fiction.
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