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the complete review - fiction
In the Light of
What We Know
Zia Haider Rahman
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B : much that impresses, but overwhelmed by its ambitions
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "If this sounds arch -- writing about writing, tricksy games with authority and reliability -- it doesn't read that way. The book's depth is utterly absorbing, its stories as real in their effect as they are illusory. (...) (T)his, ultimately, appears to be the hugely impressive novel's central ambition; to demonstrate that the gathering of stories, the marshalling of facts, the patient documenting of all the available evidence does indeed take us somewhere - but it cannot take us everywhere." - Alex Clark, The Guardian
- "It is a motley mix in a vast, sprawling, continent-hopping narrative; a novel so capacious it should sag, so ambitious in scope it should falter. But Rahman snares us from the start and pulls us on until his bitter end. (...) Not that the book is impervious to criticism. In the Light of What We Know is, quite simply, too eager to display its knowledge. (...) At times, it isnít an editorís red pen that is required but a scythe." - Malcolm Forbes, The National
- "The book challenges any attempt at summary. For a few lucid pages, there are intimations that it might turn into The Financial Collapse for Dummies. (...) The book is long, but that length is justified by the effort expended to conceal his rage, to deflect the guilt Zafar feels at the violence of his emotion. I was surprised it didnít explode in my hands." - Amitava Kumar, The New York Times Book Review
- "It is a novel that displays a formidable familiarity with élite knowledge, and takes for granted a capacity for both abstract and worldly thinking. (...) Yet, while In the Light of What We Know is full of knowledge, it is never merely knowing. (...) In the Light of What We Know is what Salman Rushdie once called an "everything novel." It is wide-armed, hospitable, disputatious, worldly, cerebral. Ideas and provocations abound on every page, and if they sometimes seem a little carelessly abandoned, there is nonetheless an atmosphere of intellectual pluripotency." - James Wood, The New Yorker
- "In the Light of What We Know is an extraordinary meditation on the limits and uses of human knowledge, a heartbreaking love story and a gripping account of one man's psychological disintegration. This is the novel I'd hoped Jonathan Franzen's Freedom would be (but wasn't) -- an exploration of the post-9/11 world that is both personal and political, epic and intensely moving." - Alex Preston, The Observer
- "(A)s interesting and thoughtful as these asides are, they create a narrative with an unclear trajectory and stakes that are shadowy and ill-defined for much of the book. Only late does the novel's purpose become clear and Zafar's narrative gain resonance." - Publishers Weekly
- "(T)oo often the observations are shoehorned into the text. (...) Still, one has to applaud the intelligence on display. Every reader will find light thrown on something they did not know." - Sameer Rahim, The Telegraph
- "Rahmanís attentiveness to the social implications of knowing things is a constant source of pleasure. (...) It is, among many other things, a beautiful, anguished tirade against narrowness and complacency." - Edmund Gordon, Times Literary Supplement
- "Mr. Rahman's splendidly enterprising debut tackles the unruly subjects of nation-building and financial meltdowns in an effort to put its hands around the governing forces of the 21st century. (...) I wish Mr. Rahman had brought in such a plot before 350 pages had passed. Yet even the novel's apparent shapelessness serves a purpose -- it highlights the uncertainty and incoherence uniting a world in which, at a moment, markets can crash and occupied countries can plummet into chaos. This is a trenchant attempt to represent the scope of all that remains unknown and uncontrollable. " - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
In the Light of What We Know is an unwieldy novel, full of twists and loops and tangents (and, god help us, footnotes).
Much of it impresses, but the weight of its ambitions is a lot for it to bear.
There are a lot of fancy and neat pieces, but when they're ultimately all assembled the big puzzle doesn't quite live up to all that's been put into it.
The novel opens with the arrival, in 2008, of peripatetic Zafar at the London home of the nameless narrator, whose own career has hit the skids hard and who is being positioned as the fall-guy for the mess the erupting financial crisis has wreaked at the investment bank where he has been raking in the big bucks.
Zafar used to work there too -- indeed, helped him get the job -- but Zafar moved on quite a while back.
For now, however, he settles in at the narrator's home, occasionally disappearing for a few days, but for the most part staying around and telling his (long) story, not so much in roundabout fashion but with lots of filler.
The narrator then re-presents that here (along with a few asides and filler-material of his own), piecing it together from their conversations, recordings he made of these, as well as Zafar's notebooks -- and: "following up with my own research where necessary".
The narrator and Zafar both went to Oxford, but their backgrounds are very different: Zafar was born in East Pakistan, in what is now Bangladesh, while the narrator's family is from Pakistan proper.
Both largely grew up abroad, the narrator's well-heeled family, with the father a leading academic (the narrator was born in Princeton), moving comfortably in the leading international circles while Zafar's family circumstances remained very humble.
Zafar is the more impressive academic, however -- a first in maths from Oxford, then a Harvard law degreee, then admission to the English bar after a brief turn in investment banking.
Another connection is Emily Hampton-Wyvern, the love of Zafar's life, whom the narrator knew before she met Zafar.
With a father who is a High Court judge, the family is again in a very different league than Zafar's -- and class differences are a major sticking point for Zafar/Rahman.
(Regrettably, Zafar's background very closely resembles that of author Rahman, and many of the slights and observations about class -- and the novel is saturated in them -- feel all too uncomfortably personal.)
A central part of Zafar's story is his trips to Afghanistan, in 2002, just as the first pseudo-efforts at reconstruction and state-building are being undertaken.
Emily summoned him (though he also has other reasons for going), and these trips are the focus of his story, with his relationship with Emily at that point just one of the factors in play.
Of course, what exactly happened there is only revealed near the conclusion of the story.
From the beginning, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem plays an important role in the story.
Zafar is a big fan, and he brings it up repeatedly -- complaining also that, while it is one of: "the three greatest feats of science in the twentieth century" (along with the theory of relativity and the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA) it: "has no place in the popular imagination".
That seems a somewhat dubious proposition, though presumably it depends on what is considered the 'popular imagination'; in any case, Rahman's novel is also meant to be a fictional treatment of the theorem, the idea (simply put) that any system can not be both complete and consistent -- that there are truths in the system which are not provable within it.
It is Zafar himself that is unknowable in his entirety here, the narrator's efforts ones that fall short at capturing both a complete and consistent version of the man.
(Rahman forces the issue a bit, but it's not fatal -- and the fundamental idea at (or put to) work here is reasonable enough.)
One angle of the incompleteness theorem at work here is that it is the narrator who assembles the information in trying to draw the picture of the system, of Zafar.
At one point in their many conversations the narrator suggests Zafar should do the work himself: "You should write a book [...] A memoir. An autobiography."
Zafar has no intention of doing so (though he has those information-filled notebooks ...) and they debate fiction and autobiography.
But the crux of the matter is, as Zafar explains:
I'm not saying there isn't a book to be written -- you can have a go.
What I'm saying is that the thing I want to write I can't write; maybe it can't be written.
Zafar, who abandoned mathematics -- in part, no doubt, because of its limitations, the consequences of Gödel's insight -- similarly avoids this attempt at describing a complete and consistent system, especially from within -- and he knows words won't suffice, either:
Putting things on paper makes things real, hardens them, makes them unchangeable, even before things have made sense.
Since when did books ever solve anything ?
They only raise more questions than they answer, otherwise they're just fucking entertainments, and I'm not here to fucking entertain you.
(The appeal, to Rahman, surely is in raising more questions than he answers; still, he doesn't really have to hammer home that point quite so obviously.)
Zafar's story is a kind of confession -- though refracted through the narrator, who has a bit confessing and facing-his-past (and present, with failed marriage and failed career) to deal with too.
Late in the novel he suggests he regards: "much of Zafar's story as a kind of defense".
Part of the tension in the novel is, of course, the long open question of what exactly Zafar is confessing to, what he is defending.
There are a couple of rather disparate layers to the novel, but they do all fit together.
Rahman is working towards a big picture -- a comprehensive system -- and so much of this does have a place; still, it's a lot.
Zafar is keenly aware of class distinctions (especially of the British variety), and while his observations about class are often interesting one suspects these parts most closely reflect Rahman's own experiences and observations, and he harps on them rather much (though on the other hand there's probably little harm and maybe some good in reminding the English what a fucked-up (class-)society they are).
The maths, too, plays an interesting role, in particular with regards to its applications in the banking sector (and the resulting mess) -- though here too Zafar's class hang-ups are too prominently played up ("Mathematics doesn't care about authority, it doesn't care about who you are, where you're from, what your eye color is, or who you're having supper with").
The American/foreign role in Afghanistan, post-2001, (and the historic American failures in Bangladesh in 1971) also make for interesting material (with Zafar firmly on the anti-meddling side).
And, finally, there's also Zafar's Bangladeshi background -- complete with the amusing reactions ignorant Westerners show.
(Among the disappointments of this drawn-out story is that Zafar does not describe the time he spent in Bangladesh as an adolescent in much detail, beyond his arrival.)
In the Light of What We Know is, in its presentation, a digressive novel.
It's not just stray stories and background-filler all over the place.
There are footnotes.
And each chapter comes with one or more ostentatious introductory epigraphs -- as was popular in ... nineteenth-century novels.
Also: Zafar really does like to show off the little bits of knowledge he's accumulated.
At some points he comes across as (obnoxiously) too clever by half:
Maurice was at the Sorbonne.
In the Light of What We Know is an intriguing sort of character-portrait, even as it insists all along that the self (and the other) are unknowable in their totality (as Gödel proved).
The shifty, shifting Zafar is certainly an interesting character, and he is convincingly ungraspable.
As someone tells him at one point: "you are so unsure of your bearings that you wonder if you're pretending to be the person you actually are", and it's to Rahman's credit that he can hold the reader's attention despite all he does with his character, and the way he unfolds the story.
He's over fifty ?
What makes you think that ?
Since 1968, other than an administrative entity, there has been no such thing as the Sorbonne.
Rahman is clearly a smart man with a lot of interesting ideas, and he writes well (though it doesn't look like there was much of a firm editorial hand trying to tighten this unwieldy narrative), and In the Light of What We Know is fairly consistently an engaging read (though it does flag repeatedly, and the payoff might not satisfy all readers).
Ultimately -- and as a whole --, however, it doesn't rise far beyond the interesting-failure category -- though a lot of its parts are, indeed, pretty interesting.
- M.A.Orthofer, 18 April 2014
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In the Light of What We Know:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Zia Haider Rahman was born in Bangladesh in 1969 and grew up in England.
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© 2014 the complete review
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