Religion, a young Muslim character in Nadeem Aslam’s extraordinary novel observes, is often another source of torment for millions of deprived peoples. This is certainly true of the main characters of Maps for Lost Lovers, which spans a troubled year in the life of a Pakistani immigrant community in a working-class English town. Shamas, a left-wing social worker in his mid-sixties, has long been estranged from his devout, conservative wife, Kaukab, whose belief that “too much freedom isn’t good for anyone or anything” has driven her children away from home. Fear of Allah’s wrath also blights the life of Suraya, a divorced woman, who tries to seduce Shamas into a quick marriage and then a quick divorce in order to be able, in accordance with Islamic law, to remarry her previous husband in Pakistan, who had divorced her in a drunken moment.
In his previous novel, Season of the Rainbirds (1993), which is set in a small Pakistani town, Aslam described, with Gogol-like shrewdness and wit, landlords, government officials, and mullahs hustling for power within a community that is enclosed almost entirely by rumor, prejudice, and superstition. A rigid religious morality also appears to control minds and bodies in the Pakistani-dominated neighborhood Aslam portrays in Maps for Lost Lovers. It is “a place of Byzantine intrigue and emotional espionage, where when two people stop to talk on the street their tongues are like the two halves of a scissor coming together, cutting reputations and good names to shreds.”
Everyone here is “imprisoned in the cage of others’ thoughts.” And these thoughts grow more oppressive when two brothers in the neighborhood kill their sister, Chanda, and her lover, Jugnu, who is Shamas’s brother, for living out of wedlock—the central atrocity in a novel that, though full of beauty, describes a cruel world where mothers abort female fetuses, an exorcist beats a girl to death, and a mullah at the local mosque is caught with his penis in a child’s mouth.
Born in Pakistan, Aslam has spent much of his own life among poor immigrant Muslims in northern English towns. Like many Pakistani artists, Aslam’s father, a poet and filmmaker, was forced into exile—and menial labor in England—by the CIA-backed Islamist dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. He may appear to exaggerate when he claims that family life in many Muslim ghettos in England is “frequently reduced to nothing more than legalized brutality.”
But the facts, as presented in government and media reports, are grimmer than his fiction. The UK police are investigating more than a hundred murders as “honor killings”—instances of men killing their female relatives for bringing dishonor to their family. Most of these murders have occurred in towns such as the one Aslam describes, whose radical Islamists, in recent years, have burned books they deem blasphemous, and in some cases gone to Afghanistan and Iraq to wage jihad against the West.
Insisting on a separate culture and identity for themselves, many of …