The Golden Legend
by Nadeem Aslam, Faber and Faber, £16.99
“The kinship of humanity was what Christ bought into the world,” reflects the fictional Bishop Solomon, Pakistan’s only native-born prelate, in this fierce and provocative new novel. Nadeem Aslam’s previous four books have tried to articulate this formula, searching for the unlikely bonds that bring people together. But it is in The Golden Legend, a tale of Christian persecution in modern-day Pakistan, that he finds its ultimate realisation.
Husband and wife Massud and Nargis are middle-class Pakistani architects, nominally Muslim but deeply suspicious of the zealous piety of their fellow countrymen. They are friends with Lily, a Christian rickshaw driver, and his daughter, Helen.
When a terror incident leaves Massud dead, the recently widowed Nargis has to come to terms with the secret she’s been keeping all her life. Meanwhile, Lily has been visiting the daughter of a local imam and one night the rickshaw driver drops his crucifix in the courtyard of the mosque. When this is discovered, anti-Christian riots break out, leaving all the Christian houses of Zamana in ashes and their residents on the run. Posters appear of Lily and Helen calling for “death to the blasphemers”.
Slowly, Nargis unravels her own secret – she was born Margaret, a Christian, and the niece of Bishop Solomon. Growing up in Pakistan, Margaret suffered many indignities: not being allowed to drink from the same water fountains as Muslims, name-calling and social ostracism. When she is mistaken for a Muslim student named Nargis on her first day at university and is treated well, she decides to keep up the pretence but remains a Christian in secret.
Aslam has painted a bleak but lyrical portrait of what it means to be Christian in present-day Pakistan. The Golden Legend is almost a 21st-century analogue of Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Like that book, this novel portrays the silent resistance and martyrdom of Christians in a hostile land. Against the seduction of defining ourselves through our differences, Aslam bravely sets up a counter-narrative where forgiveness and belief bring us together, rather than tearing us apart.
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