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A Brilliant Novel, Sabotaged

January 9, 2016

Zia Haider Rahman, In theLight of What We Know

In the Light of What We Know, by Zia Haider Rahman, 2014

How can Zia Haider Rahman, a human rights lawyer, write a “dazzling debut” novel and end it by leaving our sympathy with the perpetrator, rather than the survivor, of a human rights abuse?

In the Light of What We Know is the story of Zafar, who is from a poor Bangladeshi family. He wins a scholarship to Oxford and, like the author, becomes an investment banker and then a human rights lawyer. His story unfolds in 2008 in conversations between Zafar and an unnamed narrator, who is from an elite Pakistani family. The narrator works in finance, designing the mortgage-backed securities that led to the global financial crisis. He and Zafar had become friends when they studied mathematics at Oxford.

The story follows Zafar’s psychological unravelling: “I believed that decent people did not wish to cause suffering. This I now know not to be true. I know also that within me a rage was building, gathering mass and momentum from the varieties of injustice … [I] was acquiring the psychological means for wreaking utter violence.”

Zafar’s descent into violence is also fuelled by his desire for his lover, Emily, “the most unreliable person in the world.” Zafar never knows where he is with Emily – “She rescued me and condemned me in the same gesture.” He is always waiting for her. Whenever they arrange to meet, she is either hours late or doesn’t show up at all. She never apologises.

Reviewer Hannah Harris Green notes, “Emily is a metaphor for the West, or for England, where Zafar has never quite felt welcome.” The irony is that one theme of the novel is the danger of metaphors. One of the book’s epigraphs is from Middlemarch: “All of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them.”

The major theme of the novel concerns the limits to what we can know. To show that we have no direct access to reality, Zafar uses Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem: In mathematics, there are claims which are true but which cannot be proven to be true. The theorem denies certainty in the very realm where we might expect it the most.

We get entangled in metaphors. We shield our beliefs from evidence that contradicts them. We “alter what we think we perceive in order to suit what we want to believe. Listening to people is hard because you run the risk of having to change the way you see the world.” We interpret anything new “in the light of what we know”.

I am grateful for Rahman’s brilliant treatment of this theme, as it relates to my own work-in-progress, which explores the consequences when people claim to know things.

A related theme is: how far into the consequences of an act does one hold oneself responsible? RefIecting on his role in the global financial crisis, the narrator says, “I feel no guilt for what I did in finance. … People will lose their homes, their jobs. But tell me how I can feel guilt for something that was not only legal but actively encouraged by governments everywhere. … If I am to feel guilt, then surely it is for something that I should not have done, when I knew I shouldn’t do it.”

Thus the narrator tries to absolve himself, even though he recognises that “past performance is no guide to the future and that nothing’s quite so insecure as a security.” Zafar, on the other hand, is broken by the terrible consequences of acting on faulty assumptions in Afghanistan.

This is a demanding book that repays the effort put into it. I read it with great enjoyment, full of admiration for the writer. But towards the end I became disturbed by the tone of the writing. To explain this, I need to discuss what happens – SPOILER ALERT!

The story is told only in the viewpoints of the two men, Zafar and the narrator. This gives the novel a blokey feel. Female characters are introduced with sexualised descriptions. There are few women in the book and all except Emily have small roles.  In a sense, Emily drives the plot, because everything Zafar does is in reaction to her. But we know nothing about what’s happening in her head – all we see is her inconsiderate behaviour.

I accepted the author’s approach. The novel is about two men who are somewhat misogynistic, and we need fiction that portrays such people, if only to see ourselves in them. Then Zafar reveals that, after his disaster in Afghanistan, he raped Emily. We hear nothing about the effect of this violence on Emily. All the focus is on Zafar, as if the author wants us to remain sympathetic to him despite his crime. The victim is dismissed as no longer important.

I could only find one reviewer who raised similar concerns. Hannah Harris Green has a thoughtful and fair review in LA Review of Books. She acknowledges that the novel is remarkable, but goes much further than I do in lamenting “the absence of a female perspective to combat this heavily male gaze”.

For my part, I was disappointed. How, at the end of this brilliant novel, could the author have sabotaged his work in this way?

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