Witness to the Unknowable

Magnum Photos
Kabul, Afghanistan, 2001; photograph by Alex Majoli

“And this, also, has been one of the dark places of the earth.” This mordant pronouncement of the seagoing storyteller Marlow, uttered at the outset of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, seems to reverberate through Zia Haider Rahman’s remarkable postcolonial novel In the Light of What We Know. It is a more complicated narrative than Conrad’s great parable of European colonization of the “dark continent” and it is longer, suffused with the anguish, anger, and incomprehension of not one but two South Asian, Oxford-educated leading characters. But like Heart of Darkness, it is set in the world capital London, as a tale, or rather a sequence of tales, told by a person who has traveled widely, not happily but with profound edification.

The storyteller Zafar is, like Marlow, an intransigent pilgrim, one who has penetrated the “heart of darkness” at the core of civilization, confounding his less-traveled bourgeois listener—who is narrating Zafar’s account—with the passion of his tragic experience as with the elusive meaning of that experience. Indeed, the book provides a double portrait of individuals near enough in some ways to be brothers while in other ways antithetical, as well as an adventure story of sorts, echoing not only the canonical Heart of Darkness but F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the novels of dislocation and inquiry of Graham Greene and W.G. Sebald, and, in the suspense of its espionage-driven conclusion, the spy novels of John le Carré.

Above all, In the Light of What We Know is a novel of ideas, a compendium of epiphanies, paradoxes, and riddles clearly designed to be read slowly and meditatively; one is moved to think of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and of Mann’s remark, “Only the exhaustive is truly interesting.” If we feel mounting suspense in the novel’s concluding pages, in the aftermath of a bombing in Kabul from which Zafar narrowly escapes, it is a suspense contained within the larger scope of the novel, in which Zafar has long finished his enigmatic personal history, between September 2008 and February 2009, and moved out of the home of the primary narrator who, like the primary narrator in Heart of Darkness, is never named. With typical understatement this narrator notes, after Zafar has quietly departed without saying good-bye, “His absence will be felt.”

Like Heart of Darkness, In the Light of What We Know contains a narrated tale—a long, disjointed, obsessively detailed personal account by the former mathematical prodigy Zafar who arrives, uninvited, at the South Kensington home of his former classmate “in a state of agitation, speaking…with a strident earnestness and evidently without regard for introductions, as if he were resuming a broken conversation.”

The narrator is our sole means of perceiving the mysterious Zafar, but it isn’t clear that the narrator is reliable and not rather, in the way…

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