If The Golden Legend documents agonizing political and sectarian realities, it is also masterful and compelling fiction, intricately layering symbols and parallels, unspooling its plot in dramatic twists until the very last sentence, and revealing the deep interconnections between the themes of power, principle, love, and loss that underlie those realities. Since the November election, American writers have anxiously questioned the role and value of fiction in the face of national exigency. The Golden Legend demonstrates its necessity.
I know it’s only still May, but I’m already willing to predict that The Golden Legend could be the best book you read this year ... indelibly intertwined with the atrocious violence and despicable tyranny are moments of wrenching beauty ... In a further stroke of literary brilliance, Aslam creates a book within his book, a 987-page masterpiece that haunts Aslam’s 'Legend' from beginning to end ... Aslam both severs and reunites connections, destroys and reclaims characters, to offer readers an unparalleled experience that both rightfully condemns and poignantly honors the worst and best of our shared humanity.
As in all his previous novels, Aslam mingles beauty and pain, but this time he gives the beauty more breathing space than he has for a while ... Aslam is in many ways a traditional realist: he wanders into the head of one character after another at will. But he’s writing a form of realism in which individual psychology is often secondary to larger symbolic structures and archetypes...If character is secondary to archetype, this reflects the reality of a world in which the individual is frequently secondary to collective ideology. Ultimately, Aslam doesn’t allow this ideology to triumph, because the consolation offered by both the visual beauty and the coincidences comes in the service of a redemptive moral view ... [an] exquisite, painful book.
Aslam is at his best when he writes about the hopes and fears, the dreams and desires of characters like Nargis. But at times, he seems overly keen to include as many topical snippets as possible, resulting in frequent narrative detours ... That said, The Golden Legend is a powerful and timely comment on the precarious state of religious minorities in Pakistan, and is an honest mirror to the Pakistani state and society. If Pakistanis finds their reflection a bit too ugly, they should know whom to blame.
...[a] beautifully imagined novel ... When reduced to summary, The Golden Legend can seem to feature violence in melodramatic excess. Death is meted out by Americans, Hindu nationalists, the Pakistani government and the swelling ranks of Muslim fundamentalists. Yet Mr. Aslam describes it all with otherworldly calmness and simplicity. Some writers have the gift of making the prosaic remarkable; this author makes the unfathomable appear almost ordinary, drawing readers into his multifaceted story and making its brutality more recognizably terrible.
Fortunately, The Golden Legend is far more than the sum of the horrors it contains. Aslam writes with great sensitivity and depth about the ways human beings behave under almost unimaginable pressure. He taps into a vein of something like magic realism to add a layer of symbolism to this otherwise realistic fiction ... Despite the misery and cruelty it depicts, The Golden Legend is a heartening book, largely because of Aslam’s faith in the integrity and courage of his main characters and, one supposes, of real people like them.
Despite being set in Zamana, a fictional city in contemporary Pakistan, this novel is no fantasy. Its depiction of religious intolerance is quite the opposite—all too depressingly real. Yet author Nadeem Aslam shines hope into nightmare with the notion that love (and books) could, one day, conquer all ... He heaps abuse after abuse on to his characters: bigotry and bullying, followed by torture and imprisonment, all combined with an omnipresent government surveillance looking for thoughtcrime to punish. Just as the boundaries of credibility are reached, Aslam lobs in a matter-of-fact statement which gives the fiction a horrible ring of authenticity.
Aslam’s story has all the gravity of a tragedy and one of many dimensions: Nargis’ island retreat, once a place of calm where a church and a Hindu temple stood alongside a mosque, is riven by people seeking difference in the place of similarity, as she wonders, 'Which God or Gods had built that world?' And indeed, tucked away inside Aslam’s quietly unwinding narrative are snippets of and allusions to religious tales that speak to the wisdom of earlier days—the title itself is one of them—against the unwisdom of our own. Brooding and beautiful: a mature, assured story of the fragility of the world and of ourselves.
...[an] exquisite, luminous novel ... The Pakistan depicted in this harrowing novel is unbearably wrenched apart by terror and prejudice, but the dignity of Aslam’s characters and their devotion to one another rises far above the violence.