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The BookBrowse Review

Published May 21, 2014

ISSN: 1930-0018

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In the Light of What We Know
In the Light of What We Know
by Zia Haider Rahman

Hardcover (22 Apr 2014), 512 pages.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN-13: 9780374175627

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One September morning in 2008, an investment banker approaching forty, his career in collapse and his marriage unraveling, receives a surprise visitor at his West London townhouse. In the disheveled figure of a South Asian male carrying a backpack, the banker recognizes a long-lost friend, a mathematics prodigy who disappeared years earlier under mysterious circumstances. The friend has resurfaced to make a confession of unsettling power.

In the Light of What We Know takes us on a journey of exhilarating scope - from Kabul to London, New York, Islamabad, Oxford, and Princeton - and explores the great questions of love, belonging, science, and war. It is an age-old story: the friendship of two men and the betrayal of one by the other. The visitor, a man desperate to climb clear of his wrong beginnings, seeks atonement; and the narrator sets out to tell his friend's story but finds himself at the limits of what he can know about the world - and, ultimately, himself. Set against the breaking of nations and beneath the clouds of economic crisis, this surprisingly tender novel chronicles the lives of people carrying unshakable legacies of class and culture as they struggle to tame their futures. In an extraordinary feat of imagination, Zia Haider Rahman has telescoped the great upheavals of our young century into a novel of rare intimacy and power.

Arrival or Wrong Beginnings

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile's life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.

—Edward W. Said, "Reflections on Exile"

Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would put my finger on it and say, "When I grow up I will go there."

—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

It is not down in any map; true places never are.

—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

In the early hours of one September morning in 2008, there appeared on the doorstep of our home in South Kensington a brown-skinned man, haggard and gaunt, the ridges of his cheekbones set above an unkempt beard. He was in his late forties or early fifties, I thought, and stood at six foot or so, about an inch shorter than me. He wore a Berghaus jacket whose Velcro straps hung about unclasped and whose sleeves stopped short of his wrists, revealing a strip of paler skin above his right hand where he might once have worn a watch. His weathered hiking boots were fastened with unmatching laces, and from the bulging pockets of his cargo pants, the edges of unidentifiable objects peeked out. He wore a small backpack, and a canvas duffel bag rested on one end against the doorway.

The man appeared to be in a state of some agitation, speaking, as he was, not incoherently but with a strident earnestness and evidently without regard for introductions, as if he were resuming a broken conversation. Moments passed without my interruption as I struggled to place something in his aspect that seemed familiar, but what seized me suddenly was a German name I had not heard in nearly two decades.

At the time, the details of those moments did not impress themselves individually upon my consciousness; only later, when I started to put things down on paper, did they give themselves up to the effort of recollection. My professional life has been spent in finance, a business concerned with fine points, such as the small movement in exchange rates on which the fate of millions of dollars or pounds or yen could hang. But I think it is fair to say that whatever professional success I have had—whatever professional success I had—owes less to an eye for detail, which is common enough in the financial sector, than it does to a grasp of the broad picture in which wide patterns emerge and altogether new business opportunities become visible. 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.

*   *   *

I had not heard the name of the twentieth-century Austrian American mathematician Kurt Gödel since a July weekend in New York, in the early 1990s, when I was visiting from London for a month of induction at the head offices of an investment bank into which I had recently been recruited. In some part I owe my recruitment to the firm, of which I later became a partner, to Zafar, who was already a derivatives trader in the bank's Wall Street offices and who had quickly established a reputation as a bright though erratic financial wizard.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman. Copyright © 2014 by Zia Haider Rahman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

In the Light of What We Know is a bold debut novel set during the war and financial crisis that defined the beginning of the 21st century.

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The timing could not have been better. It is the fall of 2008; the world markets are just about to go into freefall, and the unnamed narrator of the sprawling novel, In the Light of What We Know, is getting ready to be "tied to the stake to satisfy the public's lust for blood." A derivatives trader and junior partner in his firm, he is only too relieved by the distraction that presents itself at his door - Zafar, a long-lost friend and fellow banker. From the very outset, it is apparent that Zafar is haunted. A human being fleeing ghosts while chasing shadows. This is how the narrator describes his friend.

Exactly what are these ghosts and shadows that preoccupy Zafar? Over the course of more than 400 pages, in what amounts to the metaphorical equivalent of one endless session on the couch, Zafar tries to exorcise the demons that have haunted him for so long. Arguably the biggest of these is class. To the outsider, Zafar and the narrator might appear to be cast from similar molds: both trace their origins to South Asia; both have had successful careers as bankers; both have been educated in the world's most elite institutions. Yet they couldn't be further apart. Much like the author, Zafar comes from rural Bangladesh; these humble origins funnel his family into poverty even after they move to England. On the other hand, the narrator is an American born in Princeton to a rich Pakistani family, with connections in the high places all over the world. Zafar feels this difference in class acutely, and not just in his dealings with the narrator, which might be blunted somewhat because they share the same race. He also feels it in his interactions with the English folks he meets both growing up in a working class London neighborhood and during his years at Oxford. What gave away his humble origins, Zafar remembers, was not his lack of specific brands of clothing or anything as simple as that:

They saw the way my eyes moved, my eyes watched, they saw through the scholarship boy who's always afraid he's going to trip up so he grabs every piece of information around him, every gesture, and reads every sign - because reading is what he does. They saw that none of it came naturally to me but was arranged by an effective mind, and because it was arranged and considered, measured and oblique, they saw the workings of design, the sweat of labor, and not the effortless charm of superior origins.

This fascination with class only intensifies when Zafar falls for the enchanting Emily Hampton-Wyvern. A pure English blue blood, Emily decides to do good in Afghanistan and gets drawn into the mega-complex of international NGOs all wanting a piece of the reconstruction pie. The most searing sections are the ones set in Afghanistan where it becomes clear that winning hearts and minds is an impossibly complicated task. Zafar is appalled by the incredible naivete of the Westerner trying to do the right thing in every wrong way possible: "They cannot abandon their imperialist mentality, every utterance steeped in orientalist bullshit," Zafar complains about the West. It is here in Afghanistan, that most of the real action in the book is set and where the book comes to an interesting - if slightly unsatisfying - conclusion. It should be made clear that despite the urgent tone of the sections set in Afghanistan all the "action" that unfolds is still in the past - viewed through Zafar's rearview mirror. It is interesting to note that while Zafar accuses the West of naivete with respect to their actions in Central Asia, he is not himself above such black-and-white leaps of faith. He is quick to bemoan class-obsessed England, yet hints the Harvard in that other Cambridge might be above all that. Here, people "showed no deference to breeding, manners or detachment." It was all only about ideas, he somewhat naively infers.

Debut novelist Zia Haider Rahman is a true polymath and the novel showcases his ample talent effectively. It tells both Zafar and the narrator's stories, eventually focusing on Zafar alone. But as Zafar ruminates about an endless series of topics - from salamanders to Poggendorff's illusion, to why flags sometimes fly at half-mast and more, one begins to wonder whether Rahman is trying a little too hard to make this a dazzling debut. Zafar's digressions might be the product of a tortured soul, but one wishes that the author didn't indulge his every aside. In this sense, Light occasionally comes across as too strained and so much in love with its own brilliance that it almost becomes a distraction. Because the reader sometimes feels manipulated, it's occasionally hard to fully engage with the story.

Despite these issues, there are many flashes of brilliance, of truly inspired writing that make the journey worth it. In the end, Rahman emerges as a writer to watch and, equally, an expert on the way our past binds us irrevocably to our futures. We bring our histories to our worlds and our work, Rahman observes. Ignore this, the novel seems to say, at your own peril. Where Light ultimately shines is in giving us a perspective from the other side of the fence. "Everything seen by the West is seen through the West," Rahman writes. Here, then, is a chance to move beyond that limited field of vision. The resultant clarity is illuminating in more ways than one.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

The Wall Street Journal
[A] splendidly enterprising debut.

The Daily Beast
[I]t is immediately apparent that one is dealing with a work of major ambition…[T]he main reason to get excited over Rahman’s emerging presence as a writer are his sentences, ramifying and unraveling to bring in more and more ideas between full-stops in a way that few still alive can command.

The New York Times Book Review
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 didn't explode in my hands.

Publishers Weekly
Beneath it all, Rahman has written a simple human story about the betrayal of friends, the disappointment of lovers, and the pain of class identity, though this story is often lost amid Rahman's intellectual pyrotechnics.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Despite some obvious plot devices, this ambitious debut novel has considerable depth and scope; it will be a hit with readers who enjoy books jam-packed with insights and observations.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Beautifully written evidence that some of the most interesting writing in English is coming from the edges of old empires.

Author Blurb Norman Rush, author of Mating and Subtle Bodies
This formidable and compelling novel offers the reader pleasures not often found in the same venue...This is a debut to celebrate.

Author Blurb Richard McCann, author of Mother of Sorrows
Here it is, the vast and brilliant debut novel of our time for which readers have been waiting. Set against the backdrop of economic crises and the war in Afghanistan, Zia Haider Rahman's novel about a troubled friendship between two men - one born in the United States to well-placed parents from Pakistan, and the other born in Bangladesh - is deeply penetrating and profoundly intimate, as if made by a muralist whose heart belongs to the details.

Author Blurb Ceridwen Dovey, author of Blood Kin
Brilliant and heartbreaking, In the Light of What We Know is the first truly great book of the new century.

Print Article

The Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund

"In the mess of Central Asia there are as many sides as there are opportunities to steal a march," Rahman writes in In The Light of What We Know. "There are no sides to tell us who is doing what, for whom, and why, only exigencies, strategies, short-term objectives, at the level of governments, regions, clans, families, and individuals: fractals of interests, overlapping here, mutually exclusive there, and sometimes coinciding." A 2013 New York Times article put the number of non-governmental organizations registered as working in Afghanistan at 2,320 employing around 90,000 people.

Students practicing musicThe central organization in the novel is called AfDARI, the Afghan Development, Aid, and Reconstruction Institute. This bears many similarities to The Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), which implements many reconstruction projects around the country. Started as a multi-donor trust fund in 2002, it is primarily overseen and administered by the World Bank, although subsidiary groups with local roots execute the details and directives. The fund pumps financial resources into governmental priorities for development, known as NPPs (National Priority Programs). The ARTF has become a vehicle for international governments to support Afghani growth and reconstruction. Funding military or security-related projects is not what the ARTF is for - especially since the World Bank is not allowed to be involved in or mold political affairs. Most funded projects are related to infrastructure and delivery of essential services. Money is funneled in the form of grants.

Girls at schoolProjects meet a wide variety of objectives including support for more efficient agricultural systems, improved access to education (especially for women) and keeping cultural traditions alive. For example, a Skills Development Project in Kabul takes in students from all walks of Afghan life to educate them in musical studies. Another example is the "Horticulture and Livestock Productivity Project" with a grant amount of $49.3 million which looks to "assist producer households in adopting improved practices so as to increase horticulture and livestock productivity and production in focus areas." Translated to practical terms this implies an increased output - more eggs, more meat - without increasing precious resources. Yet another example is a project on water management efficiencies (especially with respect to delivery of water), which are also expected to deliver better results for farms.

Students at school=One of ARTF's big successes has been in the field of education. Afghanistan has a population of about 30 million; over 40% of which are under the age of 14. The Education Quality Improvement Program (EQUIP) has brought six million children back to school since the Taliban days, a number that includes 2.7 million girls. These numbers, of course, don't convey the daily hazards that continue to plague the country's residents.

All ARTF operations are transparent; the public can find quarterly financial reports on its website.

Students practicing during a lesson at the National Institute of Music in Kabul, image by Graham Couch
Classes conducted at a girls high school in Herat, image by Graham Crouch
Children receiving classes at school in Bamiyan Province, image by Graham Crouch

By Poornima Apte

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