In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

In the Light of What we Know has inspired me to reread Sebald’s Austerlitz with which it shares many similarities, not least of all the weathered tone of its voice and its duality of narrators – the first person authorial voice acting as a mediator for Zafar, the true subject of the novel. It also has similarities with The Great Gatsby in as much as a privileged but rather prosaic individual is narrating the story of an underprivileged but more glamorous and brilliant individual. Both characters are Asian in origin but from very different backgrounds. The unnamed narrator of Pakistani roots was educated at Eaton, Oxford and Princeton; Zafar, his friend, was born in a small village in Bangladesh and his father was a waiter. They meet at university where both study mathematics. Later they both become bankers on Wall Street. And from New York the novel will take us to Kabul and Islamabad.

I remember when John Banville won the Booker prize and there were amused criticisms that even in the post 9/11 world award winning novels were still about reclusive introspective art historians as if the world we read about in newspapers is somehow out of bounds for novelists. Well, In the Light of What We know is a novel that enters into the worlds within those newspaper headlines. It goes backstage of the invasion of Afghanistan and the 2008 banking crash. It seeks to unravel some of the mysteries of global events by personalising them. You might say it’s a novel about corrupt and corrupting infrastructures.

Someone has said it’s more a novel to admire than love and there’s some truth in this. The erudition is dazzling, the themes incredibly ambitious, the wisdom inspiring but there’s little dramatic tension and at times Rahman digresses, veers off towards self-indulgence – it’s yet another novel that demonstrates editing is a dying art. Alex Preston says this is the novel he wished Freedom was and I can see what he means but at the same time Franzen’s novel was a character driven page turner which this isn’t. Rahman’s novel is more impressive than loveable. It’s also an overwhelmingly masculine book.  More so perhaps than anything I’ve read since Hemingway.

It’s most compelling theme for me was its subtle and penetrating investigation of social hierarchies in the UK. The passport control of class. Rahman does a great job of evoking both the compelling allure and the spiritual bankruptcy of the British upper classes, much as Waugh did in Brideshead Revisited. Zafar marries into a very posh English family but is never quite able to shed his sense of displacement, not even his emotionally repressed wife can help him acquire a sense of belonging – shades of Kit in The English Patient here. Interestingly Rahman says in an interview that what stopped him from writing earlier in his life was his sense that writing was the prerogative of a social class above his own. That it took him a long time to overcome this hang up, this social sense of inadequacy.

There’s the sense in this novel that Rahman is suggesting we all know a lot less than we like to believe. And that this knowledge is a kind of smokescreen. To bring this home its erudition certainly made me feel uneducated at times. But it read to me like a journey from the clouding inadequacies of general knowledge to the smaller but both richer and more explosive rewards of personal knowledge. It’s almost like Zafar has to be stripped of much of his learning before he can finally recognise any sense of native ground.

All in all a tremendously impressive debut novel. download (1)

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