The Golden Legend

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Member Reviews

Beautifully written and timely novel about religious intolerance. Set in modern-day Pakistan, it is an intricately woven story that builds compassion by letting the reader step into the shoes of those who hate and are hated, and those who persecute and who are persecuted. Didn't care so much for the magic realism.
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In broad terms, The Golden Legend is an exploration of the conflict between Muslims and Christians, set in contemporary Pakistan. However, it is much more than that, because Aslam puts a human face to the conflict. He gives us the perspectives of several very compelling individuals, both Christian and Muslim. The religious and political situation in the Middle East becomes personal and accessible, in Aslam’s capable hands.

Both moderate Muslims, Nargis and Massud are a happily married couple – they are architects, living an idyllic life that focuses on literature and the intellect. Although they have no children of their own, they have helped to raise Helen, the daughter of their housekeeper. Helen’s family is Christian, but Nargis and Massud embrace her with religious tolerance – they observe the conflict around them with distaste, but do not actively participate in any way. They are more concerned with building a new library in the city, but as they help to transfer priceless books to the new location, they are drawn into the religious battle around them through a shocking tragedy – Massud is caught in the crossfire of an American shooter, and is killed instantly.

With Massud’s death, Nargis’ entire life is called into question. She finds herself being threatened by a U.S. military intelligence officer, who demands that she pardon her husband’s killer in order to quell an uprising against American forces. Meanwhile, someone is broadcasting the secrets of local citizens from the city’s minarets – and Nargis has a huge secret that she never found the right time to tell Massud. The military threats and Orwellian accusations of people acting against the regime certainly adds to the dystopian feel of the novel – although it is unfortunately based on reality. Nargis and her neighbours live in fear of having their secrets exposed, and they move through streets filled with violence and corruption.

Amongst this terror, Aslam shows us that there is room for hope and tolerance in this threatening world. Helen and Nargis work together to repair the book that Massud was holding when he was killed, which was later torn apart by Nargis’ interrogator. And Helen meets Imran, a mysterious man from Kashmir who is searching for peace, and a place where he can be himself. Nargis, Helen and Imran find solace together, but they cannot hide from reality forever.

In The Golden Legend, Pakistan’s past and present collide. The characters act as symbols for their various beliefs, and yet they are also clearly developed as individuals. There is some magic realism, and the weaving of legend into everyday life, but most of all the focus is on a world that is all too real. In the political reality that we find ourselves in today, it is so important for Aslam to illustrate his novel with unique individuals on an intimate scale – this is not just a distant conflict, it is about real people and their joys and sorrows. The novel is thoughtful and timely, and it shows the survival of the human spirit despite all odds.  

I received this book from Faber & Faber and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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I’ve greatly admired Nadeem Aslam’s writing since I read his 2004 novel “Maps for Lost Lovers” which focused on an immigrant Pakistani community in the north of England. There is something so striking about his use of imagery which conveys the feelings of his characters and expresses the ideas which they are wrestling with. His novels are intricate, layered with diverse references and wrestle with pressing political dilemmas, but at the heart of his writing are compelling dramatic stories of individuals simply trying to live and love each other in challenging circumstances. It feels like his new novel “The Golden Legend” is his most violent and heartrending yet. It’s set in Pakistan and concerns several individuals caught in the middle of a fraught religious struggle. An architect named Nargis hides a dangerous secret which she must reckon with when her Christian friends Helen and her father Lily find themselves embroiled in a serious conflict with the strict Muslims of the community. Together with a young ex-militant man named Imran from Kashmir, they escape to a forgotten place of refuge – inevitably they are unable to remain hidden from the larger world forever.  

This novel fully engages with the highly-charged social and political landscape of Pakistan. It depicts an extraordinary amount of violence including civilian deaths under covert American missions, the burning of Christian homes, the persecution of Muslims who are deemed not Muslim enough, journalists slaughtered by jihadi, suicide bombers and a man sentenced to death for blasphemy just because he ‘liked’ a disrespectful comment made about Muhammad on Facebook. But Aslam shows the intricate web of motivations which feed into these horrific acts. People can self-righteously justify any number of atrocities when faith is mixed with hidden motives such as revenge, the quest for power or financial/political kickbacks. 

Aslam also reflects: “It felt strange to think this about a place that could be so violent, but most of the time there was a deep desire to avoid confrontation in Pakistan. Ordinary people wished to be left alone, and wished to leave others alone, finding pockets of love and comfort within the strict laws that governed them. They had been owned and abused so often that at the most basic level ownership and abuse meant nothing at all. It did also mean, however, that the loud, belligerent individuals and groups could remain unchallenged.” The citizens who live within a society so embroiled in conflict will inevitably feel swayed to do whatever will allow them to live most peaceably. They are also the products of a particular history and that inheritance informs everything about their being. 

Acts of violence aren’t only inflicted against people in the novel, but towards that history itself. When Nargis is cornered and intimidated in her home a precious book is slashed. Instead of disposing of this she uses golden thread to try to stitch it back together. This is a self-consciously meditative act imitating Kintsugi: the art of mending pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold. The line where the pottery is broken is emphasized in the mending because “Some things were more beautiful and valuable for having been broken.” The same is true for the individuals who survive these conflicts, who lose people they love most in life and still demonstrate acts of touching humanity. It’s observed of people displaced in the midst of battle that “old women held daises next to the faces of children suffering in the cold air, the yellow centres giving off a light that was believed to control difficult breathing.” This is what Aslam captures so beautifully in his writing: small acts of caring which raise people out of their perilous circumstances. 

Something I connected with most strongly in this novel was the way Aslam meaningfully portrays internal conflicts of identity. Several of his characters pretend to be something they are not because of an overwhelming amount of persecution. Some Christians find it easier to pass as Muslims in this community and sometimes it’s necessary to hide one’s religious background to avoid oppression/arrest/execution. But the grave danger of such concealment is that it might be uncovered. An unknown person broadcasts people’s secrets to the entire city over a loudspeaker. In another shocking scene, men are examined by officers to see if they are circumcised to prove whether or not they are trustworthy Muslims. Aslam shows how dangerously corrupt systems of government and societies can become when people are persecuted simply for belonging to a particular group rather than because of their actions. 

Another grave consequence of denying an essential part of your identity is the way in which it produces feelings of extreme isolation. This is true whether it’s concealing something important in how you publicly present yourself to society or with people you love in private. Aslam observes how “Loneliness was such a terrible thing, it was said, it made even God cry out to man.” So some of the most tender and beautiful lines of this novel are when the writer depicts scenes of enduring love borne out of honesty: “There was order, safety and happiness, and there were veins of leaves dried sentimentally in books; and there was one asking the other to choose something from a restaurant menu for both.” As fractious as the society in this novel appears, Aslam artfully portrays remarkable touches of humanity.
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