Among the lives witnessed and colourfully described by Walsh, a New York Times reporter expelled by the Pakistani security services in 2013 for knowing too much about how the country worked, are those of Salman Taseer, the flamboyant Punjab governor shot dead by one of his own bodyguards after defending a Christian woman falsely accused of blasphemy; Nawab Bugti, the literature-loving Baloch separatist leader killed by troops in his remote cave hide-out; Chaudhry Aslam, the gun-toting Karachi cop killed by a Taliban suicide truck bomb; “Colonel Imam”, the spy who saw himself as “a kind of Pakistani TE Lawrence” but was taken hostage and killed on video by the very Taliban jihadi organisation he had once helped to create; and Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the “reluctant fundamentalist” slain by government forces in the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007.
Walsh is a wonderful writer, with a gift for sketching an impression of a place, time and ambience with a few brief lines. He knows how to interweave travelogue with an account of the relentless tensions that always threaten to burst through each vignette in the book. What also shines through is the relish with which Walsh throws himself into the far corners of Pakistan, into crowds, celebrations and rites, with a drive born of fascination with the land and its people.
Walsh has a knack for inch-perfect delineations with a trenchant turn of phrase. In a particularly vivid section, he caricaturises cities with flair. Lahore is “corpulent and languid”, Islamabad cuts a clipped figure, “holding court in a gilded drawing room, proffering Scotch and political whispers”, while Peshawar wears a turban or a burka, scuttling along an ancient bazaar. He struggles to come up with a single pithy depiction of Karachi, the Janus of Pakistan: “It has too many faces: the shiny-shod businessman, rushing to the gym; the hardscrabble labourer who sends his wages to a distant village; the slinky young socialite, kicking off her heels as she bends over a line of cocaine.”
This is not just a book for someone wanting to find out about Pakistan, although it performs that job admirably. It is also a richly observed study of how humans respond to the extraordinary pressures of a sometimes-choking society; empathetic, but hard-nosed and never veering into hagiography. If there is a flaw, it is simply that Walsh’s eviction has left him unable to cover the country’s shifts since 2013. It is a sadder place now, with the military controlling politics again, abducting critics with abandon and stifling the once-boisterous press. Perhaps The Nine Lives of Pakistan will inspire others to follow in Walsh’s footsteps. And if someone at the ISI reads it, they might wonder: is having a reporter like this around such a bad thing for the country, nosy and annoying as they may be?