DEBUT novel though this may be, the intellect behind it is so vastly erudite that the reader would do well to avoid searching the work for any clear narrative structures and straightforward, linear plot machinations.
Originally from rural Bangladesh, Zia Haider Rahman acquired degrees from some of the world’s most prestigious educational institutions, including Oxford and Yale. Although he worked in the financial industry, and then as a lawyer for some years, it is obvious that a lifelong romance with reading (evidenced by the numerous well-selected epigraphs before the book’s chapters) compelled him to create a fictional work he would be proud to call his own.
In the Light of What We Know is ostensibly a story of a friendship between an unnamed upper-class narrator (whose family originally hailed from Pakistan) and his intellectually brilliant Bangladeshi friend Zafar, who worked his way up the West’s socio-economic ladders until the two appear to be roughly on the same footing. At heart, it counts as a novel about the world’s most silent and deadliest prejudice — that of class.
The narrator was born with a platinum spoon in his mouth, thanks to his grandfather being a wealthy South Asian businessman. His parents raise their son in Princeton, and eventually his father (an academic) moves to Britain where the narrator attends Oxford, which is the expected thing for him to do. It is at Oxford that he encounters Zafar, who has reached there based on personal academic merit.
On graduating, both begin to lead lives that can be viewed as enviably successful in a worldly sense of the word. The narrator becomes an investment banker at an unnamed firm, but one which we are told ranks with the likes of powerhouses such as Goldman Sachs. Not content with just holding an Oxford mathematics degree, Zafar moves to the United States, and acquires a Harvard law degree. In his own way he maintains as successful a career as the narrator for a while, until he suffers something of a breakdown and ends up on his friend’s doorstep in Britain. He begins to recount his life-story to the narrator, and much of the novel intertwines Zafar’s saga with the narrator’s memories of their friendship, against a general background of the latter’s own professional tribulations (the narrator gets scapegoated when his bank runs into difficulties).
Rahman’s writing obviously owes much to the influence of long-winded and rambling English and Russian 19th-century novels; very little about the book comes across as streamlined. Intriguingly enough, as one progresses through the text its style becomes denser and more complex in a manner reminiscent of the later and more challenging works of Henry James. The author does not dwell much on the narrator’s marriage to a diligent, but decidedly less tony, young woman named Meena; however, Zafar’s tragic love-affair with an upper-class woman, suitably named Emily Hampton-Wyvern, is perhaps the most detailed aspect of the book.
Rahman has such a nuanced appreciation of both the sleek external comforts and ugly internal conflicts of class issues that one eventually understands perfectly well — too well, some might note — why Zafar is fatalistically attracted to a self-absorbed, manipulative, and indecently egotistical woman. Like a proverbial moth drawn to a flame, Zafar consistently competes with everyone and everything around him: his best friend, his beloved, his own history, and above all, his escalating social status. Rahman knows that what makes class desirable is also what makes it dangerous — a lesson that those who are to the manner born learn much faster than those who attempt to acquire status. Since Zafar falls into the latter category, his sufferings are invariably keener and deeper than his friend’s, but it would be a mistake to sympathise with any character who, in spite of his undeniable intelligence, makes a Faustian pact to attain an identity that is doomed to remaining utterly unstable.
So strong is the temptation to ascertain which one of the friends may most accurately represent the author that one misses what may, arguably, stand as the most crucial point of the text — the author’s own self is divided equally between his two creations. This “twinning-effect” gives the narrative style a depth and intimacy that makes it relatively unique among novels authored by South Asians. Indeed, the book occasionally seems like an extended mental chess game between Zafar and his closest friend.
Most readers will undoubtedly feel dizzy at the range of topics dwelt upon, including, but not limited to, mortgages and securities, collapsing banking systems, aspects of carpentry, semi-terrorist sub-plots involving AfDARI (Afghan Development, Aid, and Reconstruction Institute), wicked interpersonal betrayals, colonialism, tense family dynamics, and the very young Zafar’s memorable and moving visit to Sylhet, Bangladesh.
Rahman’s book often appears to be going nowhere in particular, but there is little point in fretting about this for one’s pleasure comes from giving our undivided attention to his very fine writing, and in realising that the author has deliberately fashioned a semantic and linguistic Wonderland. One of the loveliest passages describes how Zafar takes a walk through Dubai in the winter and is struck by the Arab call to prayer, which, even when plain and unmelodious, retains a universal beauty and resonance. The sensuality of moments such as this lingers long after the reader loses track of much of the novel’s brilliant trivia.
Ultimately one cannot help but ask oneself whether In the Light of What We Know is a truly formidable first novel, or a classic case of the emperor’s new clothes? Put succinctly, the emperor is indeed clothed — one just needs to keep in mind that he’s wearing a lot of layers!
The reviewer is Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration.
In The Light of What We Know
By Zia Haider Rahman