“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 of so much that is ambiguous and shifting in this elegantly honeycombed postmodernist narrative, unreliable and misleading. Of the tangled story that follows, of nearly five hundred pages, the narrator observes laconically:
Yet in taking on the task of reporting my conversations with Zafar, of collating and presenting all the material he provided, including volumes of rich and extensive notebooks, and of following up with my own research where necessary, it is the matter of representing details that has most occupied me, the details, to be precise, of his story, which is—to risk putting it in such dramatic terms as Zafar would deprecate—the story of the breaking of nations, war in the twenty-first century, marriage into the English aristocracy, and the mathematics of love.
This glibly concise summary muddles the relationship of Zafar with the English aristocracy into which he had wished to marry but, in fact, as the reader eventually discovers, to his sorrow and outrage does not marry. And so the reader who rereads this passage after having completed the novel is left to wonder: Does the narrator know less, or indeed more, than the reader has come to know?
As Zafar tells his story in broken fragments, over a period of months, we learn that he’d arrived at Oxford in 1987, having been born in a small village in rural Bangladesh, after the rape of his young mother by a Pakistani soldier. Like the narrator, Zafar studies mathematics as an undergraduate at Oxford, and after graduation enters the world of finance with initial success as a derivatives trader with a Wall Street bank who’d “quickly established a reputation as a bright though erratic financial wizard.” The narrator, the son of well-to-do “landed” Pakistanis, works for a London investment firm for which he’d made “hundreds of millions” but which is now prepared to sacrifice him following an investigation into the firm’s practices by the United Kingdom’s Financial Services Authority. (“My career had been built on mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, credit derivatives, and everything else that was now being laid for a bonfire” but “I feel no guilt for what I did in finance.”) We learn that “the happiest years of [Zafar’s] life” were the four years he’d spent in his native village in the northeast corner of Bangladesh, while the happiest years of the narrator’s life were spent in Princeton, New Jersey, where he was born in 1962, when his physicist father was teaching at Princeton University. (In speaking of quantum physics to his young son this exemplary physicist father tells him that it is only through interaction that properties are “revealed, even resolved.”)
We learn that the narrator lives in a fashionable townhouse in South Kensington that feels “sterile, inert” to him; he has a loveless and childless marriage with a Muslim woman named Meena whom he’d married, perhaps naively, “for love” though she was “beneath” him socially, as his family tried to warn him. We learn that the prevailing, if nearly always frustrating love of Zafar’s insular life has been the daughter of a High Court judge with a considerable “pedigree,” Emily Hampton-Wyvern, and that Zafar’s relationship with this seemingly spoiled, shallow person has exacerbated a hatred of the English ruling class that was nascent in him from the start:
This then, right here, against the stone and the ivy [of Oxford], is where my hate began. In England, the root of true, rightly guided power, the essence of authority, was not learning but the veneer of learning, while projecting genuine ignorance of all that is vulgar. This applies to the new aristocracy as much as it ever did to the old, to the neoaristocracy, an international elite waving passports bloated with visas and residence permits, permanently everywhere….
Zafar, a superior South Asian specimen taken up by the English, is both grateful to his (condescending?) benefactors and contemptuous of them, as he is of himself for the alacrity with which he courts them. Invariably Zafar must wonder, “What part of me was I being asked to give up?” At the height of his obsession with Emily Hampton-Wyvern, which persists for years, and while he is working for an international organization called the Afghan Development, Aid, and Reconstruction Institute (AfDARI), Zafar thinks: “We mimic the Westerners though we hate them.” Barely, Zafar can contain his scorn for the
white males doing the Lord’s work, liberals with the mission of development, on the side of the angels even as their way to work was cleared by the devil himself…. They’re playing the game as it’s always been played: the game of Empire and Ego.
Similar scorn is felt for Afghani-born professionals working in public policy or international development—“that breed of…experts unsparing in its love for all humanity but having no interest in people.” Yet Zafar is in “the development business” himself, and it is hardly to his credit that he fails repeatedly to assert himself with Emily—“my fiancée, my wife-to-be”—even when he suspects that she has become pregnant by another man while choosing to involve him in the seven-week pregnancy as if he were the father.
As Zafar distrusts and hates the English, so he distrusts and hates Emily Hampton-Wyvern even as he is obsessed by her, and cannot decide if he does, or does not, love her. Emily is said to be beautiful—otherwise, there would be no story; but we never see her head-on, only obliquely, through Zafar’s quavering voice, which is further refracted to us through the narrator’s cooler voice. Emily is first seen dragging a chair along a floor in a music room with no regard for whether she has scratched the floor: “I might be inclined to think that in that tiny act…there was contained the whole of her character,” Zafar comments dryly. When Emily plays a Bach violin composition she plays it flawlessly and yet “the music was lifeless”—again, this is Zafar’s assessment. Emily is later seen at a UN compound in Kabul, seated in a quasi-public place and yet without noticing Zafar as he approaches, “for Emily’s attention never strayed from the narrow cone of her own field of vision.”
Emily is quintessentially narcissistic: Zafar complains that “she rarely asked me anything”; her typical response to others’ remarks is “the look unskilled diplomats give when they talk to someone they regard as inconsequential.” When Zafar impulsively asks Emily to marry him, after they have been lovers for some time, Emily simply laughs—“A perfectly formed ladylike laugh. Just enough. And I said nothing more.” (In fact Zafar will say much more, for this doomed relationship perseveres in a way not unlike Zafar’s relationship with the West, which he can’t bring himself to terminate even out of loathing.) Yet Zafar speaks of the “fierce sexual love” binding him and Emily with a frankness verging upon boastfulness that seems, to the reader, totally out of character:
The sex was extraordinary. For me, I mean. Generally speaking…. By that I don’t mean it was full of gymnastics or contorted geometries. Sure, there was spontaneous sex in unlikely places. There was enough of the drama, but what I mean is that it was powerful…. It was not so much that she was good at sex but rather that the idea of Emily never failed to arouse me…. Sex was the realm in which I could take control of her being, the only place where I could approach understanding, so that sometimes—quite often, in fact—her body became an extension of mine.
In no other way can the Bangladeshi-born Zafar appropriate the English-born Emily than this somewhat crudely yet unapologetically stated way of sexist possessiveness. Ironically, it is Emily’s maddening tardiness, her constant lateness in meeting Zafar, that may have prevented his being killed in a bombing in Kabul in which an American friend is killed; but Zafar is so furious with Emily, so confused in his feeling for her, that he can only frighten her into silence: “She was terrified, and I must tell you the truth: It was exhilarating…. Not threat but violence becoming.” It is the last we see of Emily and Zafar together, a brief scene that trails off inconclusively.
Poor Emily! Is this enormously ambitious novel—decked out like a man-of-war with billowing sails with quotations from W.G. Sebald, Simone Weil, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, Edward W. Said, A.E. Housman, Ecclesiastes, T.S. Eliot, John le Carré, Cesare Pavese, Ford Madox Ford, Sigmund Freud, W. Somerset Maugham, James Baldwin, Graham Greene, V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Umberto Eco, Joseph Brodsky, Saint Augustine, W.H. Auden, William Blake, William Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Thomas Mann, George Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Susan Brownmiller, as well as elaborate footnotes climbing halfway up some pages—in essence nothing but the furious brief of a disappointed lover against a young woman who has failed to love him sufficiently?
If at first we are sympathetic with Zafar in his dissatisfactions with Emily, we soon become uneasy at something petty and demeaning in the man’s behavior. In vain we wait for Zafar to consider that his infatuation with a member of the English aristocracy is a narcissistic projection of his own; a willful attempt to appropriate a person, and a family, of a social class perceived as higher than his own, thus more desirable. We wonder, where are the women whom a man of Zafar’s intelligence and talent might more reasonably, and more happily, have courted? As a thwarted love story of West and East, In the Light of What We Know is curiously muted.
Though it is a highly verbal work of fiction, In the Light of What We Know is not overabundant in what might be called foreground information. We hear Zafar speak at great length, and we are privy to the narrator’s obsessive thoughts and speculations about Zafar, but Zafar himself remains an enigma: we don’t really know him other than as a somewhat emblematic figure, fueled by anger and resentment not for political or social but merely personal reasons; we are not convinced of his ostensible charisma, nor do we even know what he looks like. We are not certain why he has chosen to invite himself into the narrator’s house, since the narrator isn’t a close friend of his; we are not certain why he chooses to speak so openly, and so effusively, to another about such intimate matters, when his personality seems to suggest restraint and taciturnity.
When the narrator suggests that he write down his thoughts, Zafar angrily rejects this reasonable notion—why? One can imagine Zafar writing in the vein of V.S. Naipaul, condemnatory but eloquent prose bearing witness to twenty-first-century appropriation of what was once called the “third world.” Similarly we know of Emily primarily through her flaws in Zafar’s eyes and apart from these, she seems to have no physical being; she flits through the pages of In the Light of What We Know like a wraith, ever retreating, disappearing, disappointing.
Of course it is not axiomatic that characters in works of fiction should be visually present to us; it is rare in the novels of Henry James and Virginia Woolf, for instance, that individuals are distinctly, physically envisioned for the reader. The more language, the more interiority; the more interiority, the more wraithlike such characters, until they come to seem rather more symbolic than actual.
If there is a single problem with In the Light of What We Know it is perhaps its very diffuseness, the density of a narrative many times fragmented that overlaps like waves, an infinity of waves; no scene feels as if it is quite completed, and no “meaning” from any scene is final. Zafar so frequently interrupts his story that the reader must wait patiently for its continuation; there are digressions within digressions, as in a labyrinth. The author’s decision not to use quotation marks further renders the novel dreamlike and remote, like something recalled rather than dramatized; Zafar’s voice often blends with the narrator’s voice, and is hardly distinct from it. Where a work of fiction is intentionally hallucinatory and surreal, like the novels of Cormac McCarthy, the absence of quotation marks contributes to the aesthetic effect; but when the novel’s world is essentially realistic, the absence of quotation marks serves no useful purpose.
Yet the author seems to have anticipated the reader’s uncertainty about his major character. For the narrator’s view of Zafar is constantly changing:
My friend appears as several Zafars to me now. There is the Zafar in our college years, the Zafar who reappeared at my door, the Zafar revealed to me by his story, and a Zafar in the pages of his notebooks.
Despite this obsession with Zafar:
Still. Let’s be clear. Zafar is not the natural figure of biography and, in the end, the reason for my current enterprise has no footing in proper biographical inquiry. Rather, its basis is in the private and intimate connection between two people, so that the field…that now draws my interest is, egocentrically, the field of my own self.
An ambitious novel by any measure, In the Light of What We Know is particularly striking as a first novel with the feel of a very long gestation. If Zafar’s testimony were presented to us sparely, without the framing device, or the numerous Escher-like digressions and reiterations of plot, the novel would more resemble Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) than any classic novel; Zia Haider Rahman’s “story of the breaking of nations, war in the twenty-first century, marriage into the English aristocracy, and the mathematics of love” suggests also the concerns of Hamid’s most recent novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013). Hamid’s is a distinctive, dramatic voice that lends itself adroitly to the tight, close, claustrophobic focus of monologue. Rahman’s writerly strategy is to resist such tightness of focus, or rather to offer a sequence of foci, the effect of which is to blur our vision; the intention is not to reduce complexity to its essence but rather to exult in complexity: “I have read somewhere that we should look to our second thoughts for the deepest wisdom,” as the narrator observes.
Much in In the Light of What We Know is mirrored, doubled, trebled—inevitably, there is a history behind what appears to be current history, a back story involving American involvement (in Pakistan and elsewhere) that renders our contemporary political engagements ironic, if not quixotic. So too, the wraithlike characters of In the Light of What We Know are never quite sure when they have first met and if their impressions are to be trusted.
This powerful debut novel by the Bangladeshi-born, Oxford-educated Zia Haider Rahman, who has been both a Wall Street investment banker and an international human rights lawyer, is a unique work of fiction bearing witness to much that is unspeakable in human relationships as in international relations, while it is also unknowable. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is several times evoked, and the novel ends, ambiguously and beautifully, with an indistinct photograph in the mode of the photographs of W.G. Sebald’s memoirist fictions, depicting Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel walking together in a wintry setting in Princeton in the 1950s: “When I look at this picture, I see two people undeterred by time, walking and talking, bumping against each other, as they discuss the things that matter to them and why they matter.”