The Golden Legend, by Nadeem Aslam (Knopf, 336 pp., $26.95)
‘Things being as bad as they are, . . . this world won’t last for much longer,” an old baker observes partway through Nadeem Aslam’s hard-eyed new novel. The baker’s young nephew Imran has already seen too much of the world to be persuaded by such avuncular hopefulness, and very much holds with his brother Laal’s view: “I’ve got worse news for you, uncle. . . . The world will survive forever, with everything staying exactly as it is now.” One sentence later, this youthful fatalism proves more than a cheap tough pose: We learn that Imran’s “brother was gunned down outside the baker’s shop, the corpse dragged through the streets behind a military vehicle over the coming days, until nothing remained at the end of the rope. Imran managed to disappear and began another long journey, this time towards Pakistan.”
The poor guy! In Aslam’s rendering, present-day Pakistan just might be the world-historical capital of fatalism. After all, this is a place where men matter-of-factly raise their shirts to assure one another they’re not wearing suicide-bomber vests; where an intelligence officer roughs up a grieving widow in her home and then demands that he be shown out formally like a proper guest; where a four-year-old boy dies soon after his father converts to Christianity, “poisoned, everyone suspected, for being the child of an apostate, by someone in [the] family.” Elsewhere, the leader of a sectarian mob turns down a request “to burn down every Christian house before daybreak,” but not out of mercy: He’s the local landlord and he needs the rent money from an alleged blasphemer’s coreligionists. He successfully encourages the mob to focus its fury on that one man. Meanwhile, the survivors of family members killed as part of a CIA-related gunfight rage against America but accept U.S. citizenship as reparation and migrate there.