‘The Golden Legend’ by Nadeem Aslam

How is it possible that I have never heard of this wonderful writer?  I came to this novel, unenthusiastically, having just completed Sebastian Barry’s superb Days Without EndUnknown.jpeg.  I have long been a fan of Barry’s work and have read almost everything that he has written.  On the back cover of Barry’s 2005 novel A Long Long Way Frank McGuinness says that Barry ‘writes like an angel’ and I agree with that. McGuinness adds that Barry is ‘on the side of the angels that fell’.

But I have now discovered that Aslam is Barry’s equal: he too ‘writes like an angel’ and ‘is on the side of the angels that fell’. Unknown-1.jpegI will be putting his four previous novels on my birthday list.  If you look at the video below of the choir at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge you will see, between one minute 14 seconds and two minutes 12 seconds, a sort of representation of the regiments of ‘angels’ who fell in the First World War, and are currently falling all over the world, in its various theatres of war, as well as in so-called peaceful democracies.

The Golden Legend, deals directly with angels. Or, at least, the angel Gabriel.  Gabriel ‘from heaven came’ and visited Mary, mother of the Christian God, to impregnate her; he visited the Prophet Mohammed to dictate words of the Koran. An equivalence, the liberal thinkers among us – leave Trump out of this – might think.  But, now, to The Golden Legend.

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Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel.  Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jame’ all Tawarikh by Rashid al-Din, Published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D.  Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland.

For Pakistan born, Aslam, who was brought up and educated in the north of England, paper is the “strongest material in the world. Things under which a mountain will crumble, you can place on paper and it will hold: beauty at its most intense; love at its fiercest; the greatest grief; the greatest rage”.

Paper is literally at the centre of the novel, which opens in the home of Nargis and Massud, architects who live and work in a defunct paper factory now converted into their home/work space. Surrounding this edifice is the city of Zamana, an Urdu word meaning period, era or age, pulsating with the noises of modern and ancient Pakistan. One sound is that of the loudspeakers, in the multiplicity of mosques, which, as well as emitting the muezzin, are being violated by a mysterious broadcaster who, night-by-night reveals the scurrilous secrets of citizens. Vigilantes punish the accused, especially Christians, especially women.

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The Tree of Immortality. Palace of Shaki Khans, Azerbaijan

The former factory, however, is set in an oasis of bright fertility: an orchard, largely developed for cheap housing, but leaving a demesne of trees; almond, rosewood, mango, silk-cotton and coral. From the beginning the novel seems surreal, juxtaposing calm with sudden violence, silence with cacophony, cleanliness with filth.

Nargis and Massud’s vast library contains two elaborate and ornate Wendy House-sized miniature mosques, both reproductions of cathedrals/mosques which served in different ages, as places of worship for both Christians and Muslims.  Nargis and Massed use them in the winter months as small studies; easily heated in the freezing space. In the summer they are winched up, towards the high ceiling, hanging, floorless, above the dwellers. Elsewhere in the house, huge, spread, swan wings are pinned to the pink wall alongside the wings of a golden eagle, a parakeet and other birds. The house is full of ‘intense’ beauty and provides a crucible from which the architects can create more beauty in an ideological attempt to fight, as Aslam himself does with his art, the evil of the outside world.

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image: pallasweb
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studyblue.com

It is not magic-realism: it is Aslam’s portrait of a world in which all that exists is extreme. Social and religious hierarchies are fiercely maintained, with the Christians, including two other central characters, Helen and Lily, as the butt of prejudice; their blood thought to be black, not red. Nargis thinks “everything this land and others like it were going through was about power and influence. All of it. And these struggles of Pakistanis were not just about Pakistan, they were about the survival of the entire human race. They were about the whole planet”.

Life is precarious amid frequent acts of sectarian violence. Vicious assaults against vulnerable flesh come from the most unexpected sources and are perpetrated against gentle and educated characters as often as not. There is no sense that those who might be considered liberal, rational and moral are thought of as such by their neighbours.

Strangely, the most shocking knife slashes are directed at a book from the Islamic section of one of the city’s oldest libraries. This book is ‘That They Might Know Each Other, words inspired by a verse in the Koran. A meditation of how pilgrimage, wars, trades and curiosity had led to contact between cultures’. This book, written by Massud’s father, contains reproductions of iconic art.

The first page to be vandalised contains an image of the Prophet Mohammed receiving a revelation from the angel Gabriel. ‘He perforated the face with the steel tip, and then the blade continued upwards through the angel’s headdress, the various ribbons and gems. Continuing, it cut into the sky full of gold stars’. The congress between Christianity and Islam is severed in an act of ‘conscienceless temper’.

Later, and, seemingly whilst Nargis is lying, sleepless, in bed, the entire book is ‘razored’ into pieces.

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Copyright: Giusto Manetti Battiloro

In an act of indefatigable hope and unremitting courage Nargis begins the task of sewing, her needle threaded with shining gold, the 987 pages back together. She is performing her own version of the Japanese process of Kintsugi. “The art of mending pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold. The logic was that damage and restoration were part of the story of an object, to be accepted rather than concealed. Some things were more beautiful and valuable for having been broken’.

In The Golden Legend, Aslam opposes the vituperative Pakistani laws of blasphemy with his call for the freedom of language, both written and spoken, especially when uttering words of love. He, like Nargis, is trying to accept and restore damage. He states that when he starts writing a novel, “I begin to think … beyond the despair, what is the moment of hope?”

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Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/Dawn.com

 

Works cited

Aslam, N. The Golden Legend. Faber & Faber. 2017.

Barry, S. A Long Long Way. Faber & Faber. 2005.

—.  Days Without End. 2016.

An earlier version of this review appeared in The Irish Examiner‘s Weekend Section page 37 on 8th April 2017.

See also is a short piece by Aslam which describes his working practices.

How perils of popery led to an alliance with the Islam world

 

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Jay Strongwater: Golden pheasant figurine

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

English readers of This Orient Isle by Jerry Brotton would think of Shakespeare’s lines ‘this sceptred isle … this precious stone set in the silver sea’ from Richard II, but the Irish would probably remember Yeats’s poem Sailing to Byzantium. Like the final stanza of that poem, the pages of the book are filled with references to oriental gold. Ironically, for lovers of Yeats’s poem, Brotton tells of a gift, from Queen Elizabeth I to Sultan Murad III, not the other way around, of a clockwork organ which was played, in 1599, to entertain ‘the lords and ladies of Byzantium’ in the same palace that Yeats chose for his golden mechanical bird. The Sultan was not ‘drowsy’ but delighted, and offered the organ-maker, Thomas Dallam, his choice of the palace concubines. It seems that Dallam merely accepted a bag of gold.

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A Portrait of Elizabeth I: Irish Examiner

This Orient Isle explains Elizabeth’s alliances with the Ottoman and Persian Empires as well as the Moroccan Sultanate, relationships which frequently distracted her from her ‘disastrous military campaign to try to crush Catholic rebellion in Ireland’.

Although Brotton does not dwell on it, the narrative suggests many parallels to Europe’s current relations with the Islamic world. As Edward Said points out in his theory of Orientalism, Judo-Christian Europeans often see Muslims as the ‘Other’, as something alien and dangerous. Said argues that because of misunderstanding or ignorance, we cast all Muslims as the enemy in the ‘war on terror’.

Brotton sets out to detail and analyse, the process by which Protestant England, with her queen who was to be excommunicated in 1570, was seeking an alliance with this ‘Other’. England was struggling against against Catholic Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire who had a stranglehold on trade. In 1566, the Bishop of Winchester wrote ‘the Pope is a more perilous enemy unto Christ, than the Turk: and Popery more idolatrous than Turkery’.

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Brown University Library

The English merchants and explorers, like many current Europeans, did not have much of an understanding of Islam; one of them, Anthony Jenkinson explained, in 1558, the difference between Sunni and Shi’a in terms of their facial hair: ‘the Persians will not cut the hair of their upper lips, as the Bukharians and all other Tartars do’. The task of these emissaries, after all, was not theological but mercantile. In pursuit of trade Jenkinson tackled the frozen wastes of the North West Passage and arrived in Persia after a long and hazardous trek via Moscow. He found that the heavy cloth that he offered for sale was of more interest in the cold climes of Russia than in the warmth of Persia where he saw ‘golden and silken garments’.

Another traveller was Henry Roberts, the first English Ambassador to Morocco (1585).  Roberts, who had been a soldier, was settled in Ireland after a period of quashing insurrection. Not only was he reluctant to ‘yield his place’ in Ireland, but he had no experience of trade or diplomacy. Brotton writes that to ‘a soldier like Roberts, used to the monoglot world of England and Ireland and its stark religious divisions between Protestantism and Catholicism, the multi-confessional and polyglot world of Marrakesh must have come as a massive shock’. In the three years that he was there, however, Roberts seems to have spent more time engaged in military and political matters than commerce. He traded munitions and agitated for the Moroccan emperor, al-Mansur, to join an anti-Spanish league.

Roberts was working under the auspices of the Earl of Leicester, as was a later adventurer, Anthony Sherley. After Leicester’s death Sherley’s patron was the ‘equally intemperate’ Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who would, the following year, be attempting to subdue O’Neill in Ireland.

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The Somerset House Conference 1604: National Portrait Gallery

Sherley is described as ‘a born intriguer, a complete opportunist’ and ‘ a completely sinister person’. Nevertheless, shortly after his arrival in Persia in 1598, Sherley’s relationship with Shah Abbas was, states Brotton closer than ‘that of any other Elizabethan Englishman and Muslim ruler’. Extraordinarily, by 1599, Sherley was able to claim ‘the right to represent the shah’s interests in Europe and to act like a Persian Mizra (prince) with the authority to mingle with kings and emperors’. Now he ‘was proposing to broker a grand anti-Ottoman alliance between Persia and Europe’s Catholic rulers’. It is not surprising that he was never able to return to England.

It is surprising that in 1888 a pamphlet written by the Reverend Scott Surtees suggested that Sherley was, in fact, the author of Shakespeare’s plays. Surtees argued that Sherley knew the ‘habits and the ways, the customs, dresses, manners, laws of almost every known nation’ and obsessed that the name Antonio, used in so many plays, came from Sherley’s own forename, Anthony.

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Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri:

Whether or not Sherley was ‘he who wrote these plays’, Brotton, himself, is extremely interested in Shakespeare’s works and has searched through them, like a monkey looking for fleas. In his first paragraph, Brotton, writes of Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri as ‘a tall, dark, bearded man’ who in ‘is instantly distinguished from the crowd by his long black robe (thawb), bright white linen turban and the huge richly decorated steel scimitar, a Maghreb nimcha, which hangs from his waist’.

Later in the introduction, Brotton, states that ‘it is possible to discern some of the local raw material on which Shakespeare might have drawn for his portrayal of the noble Moor.’ The Morrocan envoy was in London in 1600-1601, the latter being the year that Shakespeare started writing Othello. But Brotton’s rather pedestrian recounting of the story of Othello in the chapter ‘More than a Moor’, along with his foregrounding of every possible reference to the Orient (such as the word ‘surely’ in Twelfth Night being an obvious pun on the name Sherley) are much less convincing and exciting than his account of Elizabethan deeds of derring-do.

Works Cited

Brotton, Jerry. This Orient Isle. London: Random House. 2016. Print.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books. 1978. Print.

Yeats,William Butler.  “The Wild Swans at Coole”. The Wild Swans at Coole. Dublin: Cuala Press 1917. Print.

NB  This review was first published in “Weekend” (p5) in the Irish                               Examiner on 28th May 2016