The TL;DR Review For Those Who Haven’t Read The Book
What’s The Book About?
It’s a conversation or confession between two close friends – Zafar and an unnamed narrator – who haven’t seen each other in six years. It’s about colonialism, class, the Global Financial Crisis, maths (especially Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem) and the Bangladesh War of Liberation circa 1971. It has a non-linear structure and there are no talky marks for the dialogue. It was a finalist for this years Goldsmith Prize (it didn’t win).
Should I read it?
No. The stuff about colonialism and class and the Bangladeshi uprising is fascinating, insightful and thought provoking. The same can’t be said for Rahman’s treatment of woman which is appalling and unfortunately overwhelms the novel’s good bits.
The Full Review For Those Who Have Read The Book.
In my round-up of the National Book Award finalists I noted the stylistic tendency of telling stories out of order. Having just finished Zia Haider Rahman’s In The Light of What We Know I think I’ve found the most extreme example of this non-linear approach.
On the face of it the novel has a straight-forward premise. The narrator – an investment banker who’s facing the end of his marriage and his career, the latter due to the global financial crisis – comes home to discover an old friend waiting for him. Zafar, who like the unnamed narrator is of South Asian descent, is a math’s prodigy who disappeared under mysterious circumstances six years previously. Now penniless and bedraggled, he has come back to America to confess where he has been. Or so it seems.
It’s a deliberate choice of the unnamed narrator not to provide us with a chronological order of his conversations with Zafar. He admits this early on in the narrative saying,
I won’t deny that I have already altered his narrative, not the details of each episode, to be sure, nor the order in which things happened, but the order in which he recounted them.
While the narrator speculates that he’s re-ordered Zafar’s story so as to “put off the things that I myself fear to confront,” he concludes that as this is not a biography, but rather a “private and intimate connection between two people” then a chronological approach is not warranted. But it becomes clear that both explanations are true. After so many years apart, this three month conversation / confession / interrogation does bring the men closer. But it’s a conversation that constantly circles and avoids the heart of the matter.
Zafar’s avoidance technique is to discuss a wide range of topics and move the narrative from place to place. His story zips between Afghanistan, London, Paris, Islamabad, Bangladesh and New York. In terms of topics he explores colonialism and post colonialism, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the GFC and the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971 (the year Rahman was born). And throughout it all, Zafar constantly refers to scientific papers or thought experiments or just bits of trivia that sometimes reinforce whatever point his making and sometimes are just there because both Zafar (and Rahman) thought they were interesting. For example, it never occurred to me that trees transform the carbon part of carbon dioxide into wood. So, in a sense, wood comes out of thin air. Neat, isn’t it.
As a number of reviewers have pointed out, knowledge, whether it’s knowledge about how trees grow of near genocidal slaughter of Bangladeshi’s in 1971, is a key theme of the novel. In particular the power dynamics that comes with knowing stuff. Personally I was less interested in the theme than what’s actually being discussed. Zafar’s deep exploration of class, colonialism and Bangladesh post 1971 is genuinely interesting. While this is a novel I have deep reservations about, and I’ll get to those in a second, the random, near chaotic nature of the discussion between Zafar and the narrator means it’s never boring. One striking aspect was the cultural scars left by British colonialism, especially in terms of class. Sparked by Zafar’s dissection of the ruling classes both in the UK and the sub continent, the narrator – who unlike Zafar comes from a place of privilege and wealth – makes the following observation:
My grandfather spoke diplomatically, but his message was clear enough. I was going to marry beneath me, and he thought that this could cause problems. I loved my grandfather, but as I looked at the old soldier sitting in the armchair, the titan of Pakistani industry, I saw a man whose homes were crawling with respectful servants, a man who couldn’t bear “all this queuing one has to do in London and New York.”… His suggestion that the success of my parents’ marriage was founded on something like shared class status did trouble me. I knew that other families would rather a child marry outside, marry a Westerner—which always meant white—than marry a Pakistani of lower class or birth. But weren’t they other families, not mine?
Rahman also critiques how post colonialism has effected his journey as a novelists. At one point the unmanned narrator suggests that Zafar write down his story, about his life, about what happened in Bangladesh. Zafar dismisses the idea saying sarcastically,
“You’re right. What the world needs now is answers to all its questions about Bangladeshi history. And it especially needs to hear these answers from me, an alien in his native land and interloper amongst his hosts, because I know so much about Bangladesh. I’m a bloody authority, that’s what I am, a leading international luminary on the history of Bangladesh.”
And when the narrator follows this up with, “what about writing for a Western audience,” Zafar quotes Naipaul who said that:
“Indian literature written in English is astonishing because nowhere in history has a literature been produced that is written by one people about the same people but for another people to read, a literature sustained by a market abroad, the book readers of the West.”
It’s powerful stuff, partly because Rahman is shining the torch on his own endeavor and essentially questioning it’s worth and partly because it raises all sorts of questions about appropriation and this offensive notion of having to dumb down complex cultural and political issues to the very people who caused them in the first place.
However, it’s when Zafar eventually broaches the heart of the matter that the book falters. Throughout the novel reference has been made to Zafar’s ex-fiance Emily Hampton-Wyvern. As the hyphenated surname suggests, Emily comes from wealth and privilege. Emily and Zafar become a couple after they’re introduced at a party by the narrator (though we later find out that Zafar was aware of Emily before they met). Their relationship is strained from the outset. Emily is aloof, detached from her emotions and often treats Zafar as a pet to show off to her friend rather than a real person. Zafar also grows increasingly jealous as Emily spends more of her time with other people. On a couple of occasions the narrator asks Zafar what he saw in Emily. Zafar mentions something about being attracted to her surname and her position of privilege. Oh, and the sex. It’s all very unsatisfying.
Zafar’s confusion and frustration and jealousy comes to a head when he commits himself to psych award. While there, Emily never visits. Instead, she has a brief affair with the narrator, becomes pregnant, convinces Zafar, once he’s left the ward that the baby is his, and just as Zafar is becoming a bit starry eyed at the idea of being a father, she aborts the pregnancy. Of course, Zafar and the narrator focus on the betrayal of the affair – that’s one of two revelation that this novel has been leading too.
The second revelation is that Zafar raped Emily while they were both in Afghanistan in 2002.
There’s more then a misogynistic whiff to Zafar (and Rahman’s) treatment of Emily. We only ever see Emily through Zafar’s eyes (and briefly the eyes of the narrator who knew her when they were young) and his description of a cold, aloof, calculating woman who is incapable of emotional engagement but is great in the sack actively dehumanizes her. As Hannah Harris Green states in her lengthy, but excellent review of the novel for the LA Review of Books:
We are never given evidence that Emily has feelings or thoughts of any depth. She is introduced as almost a non-entity. The first time Zafar sees her, she is rehearsing the violin in a church, and he is struck by how profoundly she has failed to move him with her playing. Her main two emotional states seem to be envy and annoyance. She never smiles out of genuine feeling, only with some ulterior motive in mind. Zafar is smarter than she is, and she resents him for it. When they arrange to meet, she often shows up hours late.
I don’t believe Rahman is crass enough to want us to think that Emily deserved to be raped due to her betrayal. But you can’t help but feel that way given how she’s been depicted, how we never get her side of the story and how in the last third of the novel she becomes the focus of Zafar’s hatred. And yes, I get that in 1971 Bengali woman were dehumanized and sexually assaulted by Pakistani soldiers, and I get that Zafar is a product of this and I get the sad, tragic irony that a man appalled by what happened to his people would end up committing the same act to the woman he supposedly loved. Yes, all those boxes were ticked. But it doesn’t change the fact that Rahman asks us to focus on the perpetrator – Zafar – and not the victim., That there’s no room in his lengthy novel for the victim to be heard.
The title, In The Light of What We Know, suggests that we’re not going to be given the full story, that knowledge is going to be withheld. But, in the case of Emily, its’ not so much that information has been held back but that there’s no attempt by Rahman or his characters to cast Emily as anything but a cipher, a vessel for some of the larger themes of the novel. The real tragedy here is that a novel so brilliantly insightful about class and colonialism, is so appalling in its treatment of women.