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'Vigil' Sheds Somber Light On War-Torn Afghanistan

The Wasted Vigil, a new novel by award-winning Pakistani-born British writer Nadeem Aslam, is set in post-Sept. 11 Afghanistan, a vast field of human misery, physical distress and wounds — both physical and psychic — inflicted by the Taliban and the warlords who have taken over in their wake.

The novel takes shape in the countryside outside of a town that's being fought over by two warlords. Four disparate and fascinating characters are gathered in a villa: Marcus is a one-handed British physician, who (with his late wife, a victim of the Taliban) attended for decades to the needs of the local population; David is a pensive former CIA agent; Lara is a Russian woman determined to find news of her late brother, who died decades earlier in the war between the Russians and the Mujahadeen; and, finally, Casa is an Islamic fanatic passing as a casualty of war. Each has a quest, and each is essentially thwarted — by circumstance and history.

The novel's perspective about contemporary Afghanistan is enlightening, if given to pessimism. As David, the ex-spook, meditates on the subject: "What did they, the Americans, really know about such parts of the world, of the layer upon layer of savagery that made them up? They had arrived in these places without realizing how fragile were the defenses that most people had erected against cruelty and degradation here. Conducting a life with the light of a firefly ..."

Although Aslam's literary light shines brightly, the misery, hypocrisy, fear and hopelessness it reveals were almost more than I could take. This novel makes The Kite Runner seem like a Hallmark greeting card.

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Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.