In its dark atmosphere and even darker conclusion, The Wasted Vigil shares much in sentiment and tone with Yiyun Li’s previously reviewed, The Vagrants. Here are a group of characters, so many harboring secrets or secret agendas; they betray one another, or at other points, advance tactical schemes that ultimately result in violent harm. I was interested in reviewing this title precisely because it focuses on the ongoing conflicts and social contexts occurring in Afghanistan. The writer, Aslam, apparently traveled to Afghanistan to witness first-hand its current and challenging conditions and seemingly routes such observation into his fictional novel. In this respect, the line between history and the make-believe is certainly thin and in approaching the novel from this angle, we come to see what never happened might have been inspired by elements that actually did. Knowing this possible fact makes the plot all the more chilling. The central story involves a Russian woman, Lara, who has traveled to Afghanistan in search of any information of her long lost brother, who was fighting in the region during the Soviet invasion in 1979. She ends up staying with en elderly British man, Marcus Caldwell, a man whose life has already been significantly altered by the continuing conflict in the region. His daughter and wife have both been killed. Marcus’s hand has been cut off for a reason that will be explored later on in the novel; the brutality placed on the bodies of all the characters is part and parcel of the atmosphere that Aslam creates and re-creates. Amidst this complex representational landscape is a former American CIA agent, David Town, who has remained in the area for some time and is a friend of Marcus’s. It is also David who earlier had fallen in love with Marcus’s daughter. Her fate is the subject of another mystery that becomes entwined in the life of Lara’s brother. These varied national heritages, Russian, English, and American, clash against the more regionally located individuals, including the various Pakistanis and Afghanis that come to populate the novel.
In looking for other critical conversations to enter into based upon the novel, I am struck most particularly by a repeated sentiment appearing in most of the reviews, including the one offered by The New York Times, regarding the lyricism in Aslam’s novel. There is so much detail and so much pain, but rendered through such exquisitely wrought metaphors and imagery that we are subject to another kind of difficulty. It is perhaps the intent of Aslam to generate this dissonance so as to make a statement for the clear divide between representational brutality and the ongoing conflicts that subsume material bodies and inflict damage on actual lives. In this respect, it seems almost a dubious opus to present such work into fiction, a sense that all must be totally lost when even beauty, in whatever monstrous form, can be found in the imagination of a location seemingly so lost in war. Like The Vagrants, this is not a novel to be read as a simple pleasure read, but a very serious book with an extremely depressing conclusion. A sobering book and a reminder of the importance of literature as a way to, if at least superficially, live a life beyond the self, to imagine other worlds, so as to even potentially become ever more engaged in a global perspective.
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