Too much of everything
At a little over 550 pages, Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, In The Light Of What We Know, is demonstrably ambitious—and not just for its formidable girth. Moving between the US and the UK, with several detours into Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, it stakes a claim to the epithet of “the global novel” early on. As the story progresses, its major themes—the financial crisis of 2007-08, the aftermath of the “war on terror”, the evolution of racial and religious politics in the West over the last decade—signal its affinity with a certain genre of fiction—the “novel of ideas”, to be precise—that is much beloved in the academe (by the way, aren’t all novels made of ideas?).
Rahman’s is the sort of book that is likely to be glowingly prescribed by departments of literature and creative writing, inflicted upon students, dissected by scholars, and praised to the high heavens by the writerly fraternity. Judging from its reception in the West, a variation of this celebratory dance seems to have already begun. And yet, in spite of its substantial achievements, In The Light Of What We Know remains painfully overwritten, self-indulgent and pompous.
Of the many tedious conceits strewn across its pages, perhaps the most irritating is the unnamed narrator’s obsequious pretence that he is not writing a novel but “simply setting out the facts I know”. The source of his knowledge is his friend Zafar, who is not only an unreliable narrator, quick to change subjects and digress endlessly, but also deserves to go down as one of the least likeable figures in the annals of contemporary fiction.
The plot, or rather whatever vestiges of it one can grasp, unfolds through a series of conversations between Zafar and the narrator, who met each other at Oxford as students of mathematics, though the two could not have been more different as far as their personal fortunes are concerned.
Born in rural Bangladesh under circumstances riddled with violence, Zafar takes an incredible leap forward when he is brought to London by his adoptive parents and given a reasonably good education. Through sheer industry, he manages to secure a place at Oxford, before going on to work as an investment banker in New York, re-training as a lawyer, and ending up as a legal consultant for international funding bodies in Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
In contrast, the narrator, born into an affluent Pakistani family, is of a different stock altogether. His grandfather is a wealthy businessman, widely connected with the international political and entrepreneurial elite. His father is a physicist but also a man of faith. “He is a Muslim,” the narrator says, “not a zealot but a quiet believer”. In case we don’t get it, he adds that his father has never worn a skull cap but has always attended the Friday prayers. What’s more, he never bothers to pray on any other day or shows “a drop of guilt for drinking alcohol”. His indulgence in whisky, the narrator tells us in case we still feel ambivalent about it, places him in “a great Pakistani tradition”, headed by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the country.
The operative word here is “we”. Rahman’s novel appears to have been expressly written, and edited, with a “Western readership” in mind. Indeed, to qualify the phrase, it seems to be addressed at a particularly unaware and unenlightened subset of this target market, who have to be explained every cultural nuance of life outside their protected existence with scrupulous care, as one does to a child.
The propensity to offer lengthy commentaries on everything under the sun is particularly endemic in Zafar, who finds it hard to stick to one topic for more than a few minutes—which gives the narrator the perfect ruse to hop, skip and jump among timelines, places and characters, and Rahman the excuse to fetishize the unruliness of his prose and its lack of a coherent structure.
For Zafar, brilliance is a curse. Not only is he prone to obsessing about obscure mathematical theories, he is also a walking-talking Wikipedia. If he utters the word Bangladesh, he will make sure it is followed by a potted history of the nation (the country is so riverine that “every third step you take is watery”—which must be news to those who live there). In case he wishes to tell us about his beloved playing J.S. Bach’s Chaconne on violin, be assured to find a footnote—literally—telling you everything you need to, and need not, know about the piece in order to sense its greatness (every chapter also begins with two-three epigraphs, from Saint Augustine to Albert Einstein, taking well over a page sometimes). And when he slips in the word “Bilaath” (referring to “Vilayet”), he follows it up with the etymology in unironic detail.
Not only are such glossaries condescending, they also seem superfluous—though looking for rhyme or reason in Zafar’s monologues may make you feel like Alice trying to be polite and considerate at the Mad Tea Party.
Zafar, who can give one of the talkative Jewish men in a novel by Saul Bellow or Philip Roth a run for their money, suffers from the kind of verbal diarrhoea that is the sign of a clinical disorder. He has, we learn, spent time at a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown, though his tendency to intellectualize every emotion he feels and over-interpret the slightest gestures of others remains irrepressible. This condition is exacerbated by his relationship with Emily, an upper-class British rose, whom he loathes and loves with equal passion. It is Emily, the vital link between him and his friend the narrator, who emerges as the most complex character in the end and the cause of the kind of intrigue we may encounter in a William Boyd mystery—only Rahman, a former investment banker on Wall Street, did not wish to write a crisp, fun, Boyd-like book. Hidden in those 500-plus pages, instead, is a mini-treatise on fixed-income derivatives and the sub-prime crisis for those who do not know, or could not care less about it—or were perhaps waiting to learn about it all from a work of fiction.
For its “clash of the civilizations” theme, In The Light Of What We Know may bring to mind The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), another novel by a former investment banker (Mohsin Hamid), albeit one that is far more cogent and engaging. But it is the name of W.G. Sebald, especially his novels The Rings Of Saturn (1995) and Austerlitz (2001), that have been invoked as the most prominent influences on Rahman’s work. Except for the most superficial resonances—Sebald’s digressive mode, his inward-looking voice, and vast erudition—there is little else in Rahman’s book to justify such comparisons. If at the end of a Sebald novel one is left numb with a knowledge that surpasses all understanding, one’s overwhelming response at the conclusion of Rahman’s tome is a deep sigh of relief.