Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, In the Light of What We Know, is one of the most intellectual, erudite, epic novels I’ve ever read. Rahman, born in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh and raised in England, shows the polymathic range of David Foster Wallace, the facility with language of Graham Greene, and the scope of Anthony Powell, crafting a story that takes place on three continents, across a war, a financial collapse, in slums and drawing rooms, all to delve into the mystery of one man’s search for an unknown solution.
The nameless narrator of In the Light of What We Know is its Nick Jenkins, a man largely apart from the action, yet our sole lens into the story whose occasional forays into the narrative have stark consequences. The main character is his friend Zafar, Sylheti-born like Rahman, raised in England yet always aware of his separate status from both the white English aristocracy but even from others of South Asian descent who were raised in different circumstances. Zafar has been off the grid – or merely off the narrator’s radar – for about seven years when he shows up on the latter’s doorstep, looking haggard, with a long story to tell that forms the basis of the novel. The tale he unfolds comes in nonlinear chunks with frequent interruptions and asides by the narrator, and it is up to the reader to piece things together.
Zafar himself is also a polymath, a genius at mathematics with a particular obsession for Gödel’s incompleteness theorems (which state, in short, that arithmetic is not a complete system, so there will be statements within it that cannot be proved within the system itself) who makes his first mark on the world in financial analysis. The narrator ends up with a job in derivatives trading thanks to a good word from Zafar, eventually building a portfolio of credit default swaps and CMOs that, of course, proved highly profitable until one day it wasn’t. Zafar, meanwhile, walks away from one career after another, following his peripatetic mind to law school, back to south Asia to work in human rights in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and eventually the post-Taliban Kabul, with many stops intertwined with his affair with the patrician Emily Hampton-Wyvern, for whom Zafar falls hard enough that he can never quite recover.
As Zafar, who resists his friend’s entreaties to turn these recollections into a formal memoir, recounts his life story in these disparate soliloquies, the picture of the man emerges first in sketch, then in greyscale, but never quite in full-color focus. He remains scarred by certain key instances from his childhood: the derailed train he was supposed to be on, the shame over his ‘unpronounceable’ (read: non-English) given name, his poverty in England, a cringe-comic scene in the Hampton-Wyvern’s drawing room. Zafar’s development isn’t so much arrested as undefined; he yearns for the completeness in his life that mathematicians believed they had found in arithmetic before Gödel blew it up. Finding repeated disappointments, inexplicable tragedies, and systemic racism wherever he travels, he walks away from one successful career, launches a second, only to find himself back in Kabul with Emily after their first split, a second meeting that leads to an engagement, a revelation, and the closest thing the novel has to a plot climax.
The narrator is in the story a few times, notably in the betrayal of his friendship that seems to be at least one reason, if not the sole one, that Zafar has shown up on his friend’s doorstep in September, 2008, just as the markets are collapsing, the narrator has been fired (perhaps scapegoated) for his firm’s losses, and the narrator’s wife has moved out. This involvement makes it clear the narrator is not as disinterested as he appeared to be, although Rahman doesn’t give us reason to question his reliability; instead, however, it may drive the questions he has the narrator pose to Zafar – or not pose – to tease out the latter’s multi-threaded story.
When the novel does reach its conclusion in Kabul, Zafar learns multiple things that once again upset his precarious mental state, leading to the novel’s one shocking turn as well as the end of Zafar’s stay with his narrator, even though he hasn’t finished so many of the threads of his story. (What exactly happened during his return to Bangladesh at age 12, after the train wreck, is never revealed.) Instead, Rahman deals us the devatasting one-two punch of a the narrator’s own realization of the impact of his betrayal on top of Zafar’s discovery that he lacked the agency he believed he had in his work and life.
Rahman makes implicit and explicit references to more fields of study than I could count, from number theory to quantum physics, from Graham Greene (whose novels The End of the Affair and The Quiet American, both amazing works of literature, pop up frequently here) to Kierkegaard, from carpentry to classical art. The author infuses Zafar with much of this knowledge and the odd mixture of passions or obsessions, including dropping him into the Hampton-Wyvern’s drawing room as the outsider observing their absurd, stiff-upper-lip lives with a mixture of bemusement and resentment to subtle comedic effect. Elsewhere in the novel, however, Rahman uses Zafar’s breadth and depth of knowledge to allow him to manipulate conversations or see through subterfuges in ways that draw secondary characters out of themselves, often by unnerving them with his probing questions, producing dialogue of a caliber I’ve scarcely seen in contemporary or classic fiction. It’s a tour de force of a novel, an arduous read that simultaneously pays homage to the western canon while upending it entirely from its very non-western vantage point.
In the Light of What We Know won the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction in 2014, putting Rahman in company with Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and E.M. Forster.
Next up: The Collected Stories of John Cheever, the most recent Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner I have yet to read.