In the Light of What We Know opens when an old friend of the narrator’s, Zafar, turns up on his South Kensington doorstep with nothing but a small bag and a story to tell. The narrator proceeds to tell that story in a first person narrative whose referent floats between the narrator and Zafar, using style as well as substance to question the nature of identity. Zafar was born in Bangladesh of a girl raped in the war with Pakistan and was adopted by relatives who brought him to England. His thirst for learning took him away from his life as the son of waiter, into the life of the intellectual elite. In what literary and cultural history does Zafar’s story find a home? Zafar may try to find a home in the world of the ideas, but it leaves him no less troubled. His is a voice of learning cut free from a sense of belonging. His is a story with multiple tongues.
In The Light Of What We Know suggests that all we can learn, any new experience or knowledge, can only be interpreted by what we already know, so that all perception is filtered by who we have been and what we have learned so far. What is beyond our horizon is viewed in the context of what rises to meet that horizon. Two people may learn the same things, but perceived from different angles that learning will be interpreted very differently. The main characters in the novel, the unnamed narrator, and his friend Zafar, may have originated from a similar part of the world – the narrator from Pakistan and Zafar from Bangladesh – but the narrator was born into an elite, well-educated Pakistani family and Zafar was born into poverty. They met at Oxford studying mathematics, but the way they choose to wield the power of their knowledge is very different. Class as well as race are shown to play a large role in both how we access and use knowledge.
Early in the novel, Zafar’s ex-girlfriend, Emily, an upper class English woman, asks him to go to Afghanistan.
“You could make such a difference to the lives of twenty-five million people.
Did she think that Afghanistan was the only place that mattered? And did she think that I might be flattered into coming? Worse still, did she think that anyone could make such a difference? She did. They all did, this invading force of new missionaries. They were an army in all but name, not the army carrying guns that cleared their path, nor one carrying food or medicine. But they came bearing advice and with the arrogance to believe that they could make all the difference. Yes, they mean well, but the only good that an absence of malice guarantees is a clear conscience. I knew Emily believed in their creed, and when I saw that she did, suddenly, as if a wire had been cut inside, I had in me a thought, not yet an intention, but a question, one set out in the languages of my childhood and in the perfectly clean lines of mathematics. I had a thought as powerful as an idea born in oppression: Who will stop these people?” (p34)
In The Light Of What We Know is full situations in which we are made to question how people earn the right to make decisions about and for others, often without having asked those others what they know or what they think. We follow events in Afghanistan and we are privy to discussions on the finance behind the banking crisis, but the novel is also about the relationship between the narrator and Zafar, and their relationships with their families and with women.
Despite its syntactical and linguistic elegance – written to be quoted alongside the many works the novel itself quotes freely from – and its playful stretching of narrative form, there are things about the book that I found frustrating. The novel is as much a love story as a novel of modern times; yet love, in particular romantic love, is one of the few things the novel truly struggles to express. Perhaps the lessons of subterfuge learnt from the international stage of finance and war sabotage any hopes for meaningful relationships. Even the relationship between Zafar and the narrator is fraught with misconception and deception.
Either way, Meena, the narrator’s wife, and Emily, are central figures in the novel and yet we barely hear a word from either of them. Important moments of emotional crisis are gestured towards but ultimately left seething in an uncomfortable silence. It has not escaped me that this may be intentional – what is not said or written is as powerful as what is and perhaps the potential replaying of the circumstances of Zafar’s own conception are best left unvoiced – but it leaves me frustrated.
The one chapter that does try to write about love is the story of Alessandro Moisi Iacoboni, Chapter 13, and its sentimental tone would, had I been the book’s editor, have made me mark it for deletion. It does however, highlight the importance of lost mothers who seem to be the true vehicles for love in Zafar’s life, but as they are lost they can only cast shadows over romantic affairs that are anything but sentimental or romantic. If anything love affairs between men and women are charged with frustration and self-loathing. There are women in the novel who are viewed in a favourable light, but the main thrust of the story is mostly concerned with the male milieu. It depresses me how easily a novel of international affairs can dismiss women, though the blame for that does not lie entirely with the author, and it makes we wonder about why so much of what we consider to be literary has such a dominantly male tone.
Despite these quibbles, In The Light Of What We Know is a profoundly engaging novel, full of provocation and intrigue. I admire the writing and the conception of the novel immensely. Sometimes I was unsure of how knowing the author was in his use of quotation. Whilst it is ostensibly the narrator who chooses to ground his story in multiple quotations from great writers and thinkers, Zia Haider Rahman is having his cake and eating it. He is asking us to question how knowledge is accrued and delivered, he is asking us to question intellectual posturing, and yet he is also able to wear his very great learning upon his sleeve. This confliction is very typical of the kinds of knots the novel presents. There is something delightful about this kind of provocation, but In the Light of What We Know, never lets you forget that the pleasure comes at a cost.
In The Light of What We Know is a novel full of the pain of wanting to belong. A novel of and for our time, this is book that everyone should read.
Next week I’ll be reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Please do send in suggestions for future weeks.