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In the Light of What We Know

In the Light of What We Know - Zia Haider Rahman For the educated reader, this book has a couple of seductive qualities. First, the author’s writing – by which I mean his use of language – is good; read a sample and you’ll be convinced this is quality literary fiction. Second, he has an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of a wide range of subjects, which he does not hesitate to share at length. There's something rather charming about a book in which characters are sitting around chatting about history, and someone says, "There was a telegram sent by the British ambassador at the beginning of the 1971 war in Bangladesh that you simply must read," and then the book quotes the entire telegram. It makes you feel you're learning something. But the storytelling is poor, and so I recommend you back away before getting sucked into its 500 unsatisfying pages.

This book is about a British-Bangladeshi guy named Zafar, who is brilliant at everything, from mathematics to law, and who shares many biographical details with the author. Zafar has something to get off his chest, so he looks up an old college friend and rambles at him about other things for hundreds of pages. The college friend isn’t given a name, so I’ll call him Amir, after the narrator of The Kite Runner; like that character, he is privileged, dull and a bit of a douche. (Zafar is the same without the privilege – the two narrative voices are identical, of course – and even more pedantic.) Amir is so fascinated by Zafar’s non-story that he decides to record all their conversations, and then writes a book about it. Amir does not have any plotline of his own, despite all the page time he gets.

Novels, in general, are made up of scenes with a beginning and an end, which serve to advance the plot. This book is made up of digressions, its scenes simultaneously never-ending and pointless; a mundane encounter in a bar can take up several non-consecutive chapters, only to finally end with a whimper, leaving the reader to wonder why a non-event would be given such narrative weight. For instance, here’s what happens over one 100-page stretch:

Chapter 11: Amir attends a dinner party at his parents’ home at which a guest expresses negative opinions about bankers (Amir is a banker); various financial instruments are explained to the reader; Amir has rambling intellectual conversations with his father.
Chapter 12: The inexplicably fascinated Amir tries unsuccessfully to convince Zafar to write a memoir.
Chapter 13: The life story of an Italian doctor who may or may not have been real, as "discovered" in one of Zafar's notebooks, is inserted. Never connects to anything else in the book.
Chapter 14: Zafar, during a layover in Islamabad, has dinner with some aging officials. International relations are discussed.
Chapter 15: Amir has lunch with a politician who is the father of a friend, and consequently gets his financial instruments approved by the politician’s ratings agency.

Someone along the way must have told the author that his book is boring and goes nowhere, because he inserts characteristically wordy passages insisting that it is brilliant and totally going somewhere:

“So began Zafar’s exposition of the events in Afghanistan, and even though I could not have imagined then where it would ultimately go, it had become clear that he had a story to tell, a disclosure by parts. There were the digressions, the tangents, the close analyses, and broad reflections – all deviations from a central line. I am convinced now that nothing in his account was out of place, nothing extraneous, even if at times it seemed incomplete and obtuse. If I am left with the sensation of being manipulated, then it also appears to me that there was a method and, behind that, a purpose.”

“I had gained the impression of hearing one digression upon another. But despite the lack of design, which such an apparently haphazard account might suggest, I sensed that there was some underlying theme or movement. I came to see that his stories ran together, like the rivers of his boyhood coming from the mountains and forests and the plains, a long way from their sources but ultimately joined together in one song, a harmony of place and time.”

But it isn’t going anywhere. It ends with a whimper, its climax relayed only through innuendo. As it turns out, the center of the story is Zafar’s relationship with Emily, a blue-blooded Englishwoman. This relationship makes sense only as a metaphor for international relations. Emily represents the West, England in particular, and Zafar represents the East: Afghanistan, or Bangladesh. The West alternately ignores and walks all over the East, and the East finally responds with random violence. Okay – but Afghanistan can't just break up with the West and leave for a different planet. On the other hand, Emily is two hours late to the first date without explanation – so why is Zafar still waiting, why is there ever a second date, why does this turn into a long-term relationship when her regard for him never improves? Why would someone who had experienced at least one healthy relationship ever want to be with this person? For that matter, why is Emily with Zafar when she values him so little? The book never answers these questions, presumably because if you replace “Emily” and “Zafar” with “England” and “Bangladesh,” they are nonsensical.

Ultimately, while there are a lot of ideas rattling around in this book, while the author certainly proves his worth to any trivia team, the story itself is empty. It is a long and wordy novel that goes nowhere in particular, and is not particularly convincing. I wish I hadn’t spent so much time on it.