In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

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In his 1974 essay “Conrad’s Darkness and Mine,” V.S. Naipaul writes:

The suggestion that the life of London is as much a mirage as the timeless life of the Malayan  archipelago is puzzling, because the two-page description of the London streets with which the story ends is too literal: blank faces, hansom cabs, omnibuses, girls talking vivaciously, dirty men discussing filthily, a policeman. There isn’t anything in that catalogue that can persuade us that the life described is a mirage. [1]

Naipaul, a poor boy from Trinidad, who came to Oxford on a generous scholarship, never forgot that his arrival there was no more than a trifle, that the world he left behind was shamefully small and squalid. [2] His double life, reduced to half, was at once more enlightening and a sham, more authentic and phony. He described it as a debilitating anxiety, a personal hurt, an acute exile in which, as Edward Said suggests, one swings like a solitary pendulum between revelatory euphoria and crippling depression. Even after forging himself into a reputable novelist, Naipaul was easily puzzled by the Malayan air that Conrad imposes on London, because he was terrified by the idea of imagining both of his worlds together.

Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel In The Light of What We Know is a multi-layered narrative woven around a similar rift. Rahman was born into the rural poverty of Bangladesh in the wake of its 1971 war of independence. Soon his family moved to London, where his father started working as a bus conductor and, later, as a waiter. Like Naipaul, Rahman’s wounds are visceral and plentiful. To speak of the crushing burden of the worlds he carries within, he has created a double. Zafar, whom we meet at the beginning of the novel, is a “brown-skinned man, haggard and gaunt,” who comes knocking at the door of his friend in South Kensington. His nameless friend, a grandson of a former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, is the official narrator, and enjoys all the privilege and distance that Rahman has acquired over the years, following his academic success at Oxford and Yale. But the story of Rahman’s humble beginnings and arduous journey is broached through Zafar, who straddles Wall Street and post-September 11 Kabul, financial derivatives and Judeo-Christian theology, Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel. Zafar emerges as the real protagonist.

In an early chapter titled “Blood Telegram OR Bill and Dave,” Zafar is inside his girlfriend’s mother’s drawing room, where he sits with Emily and her family for the first time, “nibbling at Bath Oliver biscuits, sipping dusty Earl Grey.” The room, filled with antique furnishings, has “the salmon and peach upholstery, the fireplace and its brass guard and magnificent stone surround, the pleated pelmet concealing the curtain rails above the mullioned sash windows, the shiny black Bosendorfer piano.” The bookcase that is “seamlessly merged into the wall” reminds Zafar of how he has spent his last summer vacation before college, waiting tables at the same restaurant as his father. He narrates a scene in which he is sitting with his father (whom everyone calls Major because he is the head waiter) and the head chef at a small round table to eat lunch. The chef gives Zafar advice: “I hear it will be expensive for your father. You must work hard to fulfill his hopes just as he is working hard to pay your tuition.” The father and the son are wordless. But later at home, Zafar’s father suggests that he might want to do something else other than waiting tables. The moment, bluntly charged, is highly ironic, and somehow Zafar contains his anger. But afterward, when the head chef interjects again by praising his father for an “unearned credit he fails to deny,” Zafar implodes with fury.

In retrospect, Zafar’s position toward Emily hardens, as though his own share of drudgery and humiliations constitutes the opulence of the drawing room. “For a long time,” he says, “including the day I met Emily, I believed that decent people did not wish to cause suffering. This I now know not to be true.”

Zafar recounts the time when he worked with an NGO in Kabul. The city is ravaged by war and yet it booms with the war-trade facilitated by the rapacious Pakistani military elite. Zafar is shocked when he watches how nonchalantly Colonel Mushtaq responds to the conspiracy that leads to the murder of Crane, the son of a US senator, rumored to be sleeping with an underage Afghan girl. Waiting for Emily, his would-be-wife, Zafar narrowly escapes death and finds himself waiting for her again, in a hotel in Dubai. His intense longing for God surfaces, and he finds solace in azan:

In the midst of this, in the long, cold and illuminated Dubai night, I hear the azan streaming out over the city. It might be the drawl found in the Arabian Peninsula, its music drained of all its colour, a victim of Salafi asceticism, but there remains enough beauty to reverberate, against my memory, and its timing is perfect.

What makes Zafar enigmatic is the underlying mischievousness and skepticism, his enduring love for mathematics, his elegiac reticence. Throughout the novel, he refers to Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, which in simple terms says: what could be logically known within a consistent system, only points to our inability to prove or disprove the veracity of the known. In Zafar as in Orhan Pamuk’s Karim and his long line of European precursors, intellectual solipsism meets godly faith. Rahman, however, owes a much bigger part of Zafar to Sebald’s Austerlitz. Endlessly adrift, Zafar is haunted by the idea that what if what one perceives empirically in the patterns of history is not provable, but a mere illusion generated by the “pre-formed images already imprinted on our brains, images at which we keep staring while the truth lies elsewhere.” [3] Paradoxically, rather than filling him with apathy, this abject feeling of ignorance makes him a tireless assembler of notes, and he continues to grapple with the incompleteness theorem.

The narrator culls a number of notes from Zafar’s countless notebooks, which he muses over to unearth the enigma of Zafar. These are placed at the beginning of each chapter. Albert Einstein. Joseph Conrad. Winston Churchill. Edward Said. William Blake. Umberto Eco. Ford Maddox Ford. Dante Alighieri. The list of the epigraphs is long. If we put them together, they could become complete book chapters. For instance, in the twenty-second chapter, “On Formally Undecidable Propositioning OR Waiting,” there are four epigraphs. The first is the definition of rape according to the English Sexual Offences Act of 1956. The second is a Rabindranath Tagore quote that says: “I seemed to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times…In life after life, in age after age forever.”

The juxtaposition of rape over tender love is disturbing for both the narrator and the reader, and on two different levels. It not only points to Zafar being an illicit child of a Bangladeshi mother raped by a Pakistani soldier during the war of liberation. But the placement of the epigraphs also challenges the idea that narrative is not arbitrary, not unoriginal.

Zafar’s journey is immense, his voice by turns philosophical, dry, dodgy. We don’t know the exact details of how Emily betrays him after they return to London, or how he plummets into a psychological crisis. But we do know the anger that burns slowly in more than five hundred pages of the book, the anger that is a muted force against which the agonies of the past are felt like a trembling presence, revealing to us in bits the truth of life and the excessive possibilities of intangibility.


[1] Naipaul, V.S. Literary Occasions. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. p 162

[2] Naipaul, V.S. Literary Occasions. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. p 8

[3] Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz. London. Penguin, 2001. p 101

Feroz Rather is a Kashmiri writer who received his MFA from Fresno State. His work has appeared in The Caravan, Berfrois, and Warscapes, among others. He is a contributing editor at The Normal School. More from this author →