In the Light of What We Know: A Novel Hardcover – Apr 22 2014
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“Rahman's novel [is] astonishingly achieved for a first book…Rahman proves himself a deep and subtle storyteller, with a very good eye for dramatic detail--the wounding stray comment, the surge of shame, the livid parable... 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.” ―James Wood, The New Yorker
“An ambitious novel by any measure, In the Light of What We Know is particularly striking as a first novel. …[It] is a novel of ideas, a compendium of epiphanies, paradoxes, and riddles clearly designed to be read slowly and meditatively… [A] unique work of fiction bearing witness to much that is unspeakable in human relationships as in international relations, while it is also unknowable.” ―Joyce Carol Oates, New York Review of Books
“[A] strange and brilliant novel . . . I was surprised it didn't explode in my hands.” ―Amitava Kumar, The New York Times Book Review
“[B]ristling with ideas about mathematics and politics, history and religion, Rahman's novel also wrestles with the intricacies of the 2008 financial crash. It is encyclopedic in its reach and depth, dazzling in its erudition... 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 Guardian
“[A]n ambitious and extraordinary achievement . . . Pre-eminently a novel of ideas, the book overflows with sparkling essays on free will, the perception of time, the nature of memory, maps, flags, etymology and the axioms of mathematics... As a meditation on the penalties of exile, the need for roots and the ways in which anger can consume a thoughtful man slighted by prejudice, this is a dazzling debut.” ―Sunday Times (UK)
“[A] sweeping and brilliant tale... Rahman's rich and complex debut novel is like [a] great meal... In the Light of What We Know may be the best meal you eat this year. [Rahman's] insights--whether related to Pakistan-India enmity, Ivy-League attitude or non-governmental organizations' idealism--were right on target, [his] characters' experiences plausible and compelling, and [his] grasp of the widely varied subjects in the novel was breathtaking.” ―Paul Overby, Pittsburg Post-Gazette
“[A] hugely impressive… and profound debut… The book's depth is utterly absorbing, its stories as real in their effect as they are illusory.” ―Alex Clark, The Guardian
“Beautifully written and renewed evidence that some of the most interesting writing in English is coming from the edges of old empires.” ―Kirkus (starred review)
“[In The Light of What We Know] is a splendidly enterprising debut.” ―The Wall Street Journal
“[Rahman's] fascination with mathematics and the universe of ideas is contagious, and enriches the complex narrative about how we know the reality around us… [T]his ambitious debut novel has considerable depth and scope.” ―Library Journal (starred review)
“[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.” ―Nicholas Muncusi, The Daily Beast
“[In the Light of What We Know is] epic in scale and reach, and pulsing with life.” ―The National
“[A] a sprawling and thrillingly ambitious debut novel…A cross between Herman Melville and David Foster Wallace as refracted through Graham Greene, In the Light of What We Know offers 500 pages of self-described "digressions" and "tangents" involving bracing, sometimes mind-blowing discussions of high math, theoretical physics, cognitive science, Central Asian politics, the English class system, the bloody birth of Bangladesh, Bach, literature, epistemology, collateralized debt obligations and the 2008 collapse of world markets... Rahman drives home that every story is a lie. But stories like this one can teach us great truths about the ways we see--and how much we therefore miss.” ―Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“[A] standout debut.” ―Vogue
“This formidable and compelling novel offers the reader pleasures not often found in the same venue. Its boldness in engaging elements of our contemporary crisis is bracing. In presenting his cast of characters, Rahman supplies close readings of class, mores, and manners that are extraordinary. And throughout, he sustains an almost subliminal resonance with the conventions, strengths, and tone of certain classic social novels in the English canon--Conrad's in particular. This is a debut to celebrate.” ―Norman Rush, author of Mating and Subtle Bodies
“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. In the Light of What We Know is a novel of startling vision, written in a prose that's as strong and bold as it is impeccable. Who's the true heir to such greats as George Orwell and V.S. Naipaul? It's Zia Haider Rahman.” ―Richard McCann, author of Mother of Sorrows
“Brilliant and heartbreaking, In the Light of What We Know is the first truly great book of the new century.” ―Ceridwen Dovey, author of Blood Kin
About the Author
Born in rural Bangladesh, Zia Haider Rahman was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and at Cambridge, Munich, and Yale Universities. He has worked as an investment banker on Wall Street and as an international human rights lawyer. In the Light of What We Know is his first novel.
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Top Customer Reviews
The book is cleverly written in form like in substance. Like his autobiographical character Zafar who rejects certainty, the author's writing is convolutional, making the story even more forceful.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I've never reviewed another book on Amazon, though I'm an avid reader; the couple of negative reviews that have been posted here seemed so wildly inaccurate -- and so gratuitously negative -- that I felt compelled to write. This book may not be for everyone, but if you like some of the best writers of our time -- Naipaul, Sebald, Munro -- you will love this one.
He could have said a few hundred other things; never have I read a book that contained so much fascinating information about every subject under the sun, from ancient history and literature, via music, mathematics and nuclear physics, to carpentry and chess. Everything but the kitchen sink -- but If Rahman had thrown that in also, at least you would have got an informative lesson on practical plumbing, shaped into a metaphor that would somehow have illuminated one of the salient problems of our time. You can get a sense of the author's range by noting the authors of the epigraphs that head each chapter: Winston Churchill, Joseph Conrad, Albert Einstein, TS Eliot, AE Housman, John le Carré, Herman Melville, Edward Said, Tayeb Salih, WG Sebald, Saul Smilansky, and the Bible -- and that's only in the first half-dozen chapters. One of these epigraphs, from Italo Calvino, says something that may well be the grand theme of the entire novel: "Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various 'codes,' into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world." It is an audacious ambition, and though Rahman may not totally succeed, he has written one of the most multifaceted novels I have ever read.
Allowing for the countless flashbacks and digressions (and digression here is the name of the game), the novel is essentially an extended conversation between a fortyish banker and an old friend who turns up on his South Kensington doorstep one morning in 2008. The two had known each other years before at Oxford, where both were reading mathematics, and kept in sporadic touch in the intervening years in New York and London. In many ways, they are similar: both of South Asian ethnicity, both with a veneer of polished English manners, both with strong academic track records at Oxford and the Ivy Leagues, both involved for a time at least in international finance, and both bruised by unhappy relationships. But in important ways, they are also different. The unnamed narrator is from a background of privilege: his grandparents were landowners in Pakistan, his parents met at Princeton, his father moved from there to take up a professorship at Oxford, and he himself went to Eton, the premier boys' boarding school in England. Zafar, the surprise visitor, was born in a remote village in Bangladesh shortly after its war of independence from Pakistan. His father moved to London in poverty, working first as a bus conductor and then as a waiter. Zafar attended state schools and scraped his way through Oxford on a scholarship. The differences are important because, like most English novels, this one is largely about class -- but class seen in a far from parochial context, with the politics of patronage and exclusion translated to the world stage.
Unlike the narrator, Zafar did not remain in finance, but went to Harvard to study law, and then returned to Asia. The slow discovery what what he did in those lost years and how his attitudes slowly change is the main plot thread of the book. I was reminded more than once of Moshin Hamid's THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, except that Rahman's style of storytelling is a good deal less direct (downright difficult, some might say) and he is attempting something rather less obvious. Also lurking in the background, and eventually acknowledged, are THE GREAT GATSBY and THE QUIET AMERICAN. The Fitzgerald comes into play in the relationship between the two main characters, except they are more nearly equal than Carraway and Gatsby. Indeed Rahman's technique of avoiding quotation marks means that two competing "I's" come into play. Although confused at first, I soon got used to it myself, and appreciated the extraordinary flexibility this gives to the narrative, thought slipping imperceptibly into speech, and one character almost merging with the other. At least at the beginning; this starts as a novel of ideas rather than character, yet before the end, the characters have developed as distinct and three-dimensional, and interact with each other in emotional and often painful ways.
Zafar takes the Graham Greene novel with him on a couple of trips to Kabul in 2002, and the parallels to his own situation will be as obvious to him as they are to the reader. On his first evening, he goes to a bar in the UN compound, and is disgusted: "The music was loud, the soles of my feet tingling with the vibrations, a volume to muffle the clamor of sexual gambits unbuckling over the scene. It was a scene of horror. This is the freedom for which war is waged, in the venerable name of which the West sends its working-class heroes to fight and die. If the Afghanis had been asked, would they have allowed this blight on their home? Is this what [we were] fighting for?" Readers who are relieved to find the familiar tropes of political or espionage novel kicking in during the last hundred pages may be disappointed to discover that Rahman has little interest in delivering a simplistic denouement. The novel ends with a photo of Albert Einstein at Princeton walking into the distance with the mathematician Kurt Gödel, whose Incompleteness Theorem is also a talisman for the novel. The inevitable result of a lifetime's search for knowledge is the realization that there is some knowledge we will never possess. For Rahman, the destination is far less important than the journey -- but what a journey!
The bare-bones outline is straightforward. Zafar shows up at the London doorstep of the narrator, bedraggled and haggard. He wants to tell his story, and the first-person narrator takes it upon himself to convey that to us, adding in parts of his own life story. It’s a narrative conceit that mostly works, though it has its problems.
The narrator is a man pushing 40, of wealthy Pakistani origin, raised in Princeton by his academic father and mother, shipped off to Eton and then Oxford for finishing and schooling. He ends up a Wall Streeter, leading his firm to trade heavily and profitably in collateralized debts obligations, which as the novel begins in 2008 have already started to implode. His marriage likewise has weak foundations, and is crumbling, too.
But it is Zafar who is the central story here. Born in Bangladesh, he is raised in poverty in London, but has a brilliant mind. He shines in school, and heads off to Oxford to study mathematics. He too ends up on Wall Street, then gets a law degree at Harvard, but slowly his life veers off course. He is always the outsider: the smart, studious child in a rough neighborhood not given to book-learning; the poor student amidst the children of privilege at Oxford; the deep-brown skinned fellow amidst the pale whites; the Brit in America; the Bengali in Britain, called derisively a Paki (a double insult for a Bengali, given their bloody war for independence from Pakistan). His own origins, too, are obscured; it’s clear early on that his mother and father in London are not his biological parents. He ends up in Afghanistan in 2007, in the midst of America’s delusional push to pacify and democratize that country, another outsider not quite understanding the rules of the game, manipulated by unseen forces. It is his on-and-off again girlfriend Emily Hampton-Wyvern who lures him to a job there, where she works with an NGO, and it ultimately proves his undoing, like that of many outsiders there.
Rahman weaves many threads into his tale—he’s in love with ideas, and has his characters give soliloquies about many of them. Mostly they fit and are interesting—I learned about finance, international law, laws of physics, mathematical theories, woodworking, finance, and bridge construction, among others—but sometimes they seem heavy-handed. Likewise, with so much going on in the novel, and its framing conceit of the nameless storyteller, the machinations of the author are too often visible. That’s especially the case in the first 60 pages, which read like an early draft that the author couldn’t quite let go of. After that, the novel picks up steam, and Rahman finds his way more fluidly, though judicious trimming throughout would have helped.
A revelation at the end of the book brings the mystery of how we become who we are to full circle. Rahman seems to be saying that ultimately we are ciphers to ourselves, playing out a role that was long in the cards, whether we know it or not. What’s bred in the bone, he implies, will out in the flesh. Poor Zahar seems not to have had a chance. Yet at the same time, Rahman also implies that all is not lost, that through telling the tale of our lives, we can learn what we’ve been programmed to do and to be, and if we work on ourselves, perhaps we can find the better angels of our nature.