Monday, August 29, 2016

Zia Haider Rahman’s “In the Light of What We Know”

Some novels are meant to be read slowly, not only to enjoy the story but to savor it, and understand it, as if to read too quickly will mean the loss of something vital. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See was a book like that. So is Zia Haider Rahman’s In The Light of What We Know. Other than two things – the use of the word “light” in the titles and both being published in 2014 – the two books are vastly different. But they are both great stories, wonderful stories.

In the Light of What We Know may defy a one-sentence description of what it’s about. It is the story of a man in his 30s named Zafar, born in Bangladesh and whose family settles in London. The story is told by his (never named in the story) friend of the same age, who comes from a distinguished Pakistani family and who was raised by his academic parents in settings like Princeton and Oxford. The two friends attended Oxford at the same time, and their friendship extends across their professional careers in finance/law (Zafar) and finance (the narrator).

The story extends across time – the creation of Bangladesh, Sept. 11, the financial meltdown of 2008, the invasion of Afghanistan by U.S.-led forces, the growth of financial markets in the 1990s. It extends cross their personal lives – their relationships with their parents, the narrator’s failing marriage, Britain’s class structure, and Zafar’s long running relationship with a young British woman from well beyond his own class. It also extends across their identities – who they are, where they come from, the displacement felt by expats in a foreign culture. And it extends into academics, and specifically the realm of mathematics and the sciences.

A significant thing about the novel is how Rahman wraps all of these story extensions together, so closely interweaving them that the personal becomes the geopolitical becomes the historical and the cultural. I read the story as closely as I did because I wanted to miss nothing. And I read it with the understanding that my eyes are Western, and “everything seen by the West is seen through the West.”

Zia Haider Rahman
This interweaving of the story lines is also about identity, and what kind of personal identity we can have in the kind of world we live in. The fact that the narrator remains unnamed, and that we only know Zafar by that one name alone, keeps raising this question of identity. Underscoring this is how Zafar is the child of a rape by a Pakistani soldier during the war for independence in Bangladesh, he’s not raised by his mother, he moves to a foreign culture (Britain), and by sheer merit alone rises from a lower-class immigrant upbringing into the British educational stratosphere. After a stint on Wall Street, he goes to Harvard law school.

What happens in Afghanistan will turn out to be pivotal, not only for the overall movement of the story but for Zafar’s personal life as well. It may be difficult for any Westerner to read how this part of the story develops, but it is full of surprises and shows us a part of who we are.

Some of the story of Zafar is drawn from Rahman’s own life. Rahman was born in rural Bangladesh, raised in Britain, and educated in Britain, Germany, and the United States. He’s worked as an investment banker (and thus in the book we get an explanation of the subprime mortgage meltdown of 2008) and as both a corporate and human rights attorney. This novel is  Rahman’s first, and it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Britain’s oldest literary award.

In the Light of What We Know is a sobering story, a marvelous story, a story that makes one confront who he or she is and how we incompletely understand our world.

Photograph of Kabul, Afghanistan (2011) by Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Fahey via the U.S. Navy and Wikipedia.

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