Straight to the point: the Bangladesh-born Zia Haider Rehman’s voluminous first novel, In The Light of What We Know, is a masterpiece.
It begins thus: In London, an investment banker of privileged Pakistani origins is caught between a flailing marriage and the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. One day, he opens his door to a long-lost friend named Zafar, in a disheveled state no less. Zafar, like the novelist, was born in Bangladesh. He had studied with the narrator in Oxford; the two had also worked together in Wall Street for some time. It turns out that Zafar sparks the narrator’s curiosity and also provides him welcome distraction. The two thus set about the process of peeling the past’s layers.
It is in these jumpy reminiscences that Rehman grants the novel its exhilarating scope, not only in the places where the action takes us, not only in the decades and events it traverses — from the sub-prime crisis of 2008 to war-time Afghanistan in 2002 to the Indo-Pak War of 1971 — but also in its desire to inform the reader with varieties of knowledge in essayistic fashion — the class structure in Britain, T S Eliot’s poetry, the immigrant-savvy spirit of America, Godel’s Incompletness Theorem, Orientalism, carpentry, so on. Throughout all this, the novel remains skeptical of the act of knowing and its relationship with micro and macro power structures.
The two friends are connected to Pakistan and Bangladesh; India is often talked of as an important regional power, thereby having an impact on the whole subcontinent’s consciousness; and some of the most important events in the novel take place in Afghanistan.
This trans-subcontinental tendency was last approximated in a novel this good in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. However, Rushdie’s view could still be called India-centric. Moreover, if Rushdie was said to derive his charm from magical realism, the only moniker possible for Rehman’s realism is erudite realism. But unlike Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, where essayistic knowledge of miniature paintings and the threats faced by the art form — with growing Western hegemony — served a specific purpose in the plot itself, in Rehman’s novel, knowledge and its acquisition aren’t pegged to any particular area. Zafar’s indiscriminate erudition is itself a counter against discrimination. It is also contributive to the idea of shunning an untested life, which Zafar has decided to do. It is commonly agreed that the most important historical events of this fledgling century are 9/11 and the financial crisis. The complications that need to be traversed to gain any meaningful understanding of these events make it extremely difficult for any novelist to tackle them in a dramatic way. Rehman’s novel operates with a world-historical-consciousness that clarifies just who faces the brunt of History, of all that is wrong in the world. The idea of ‘The Age of Knowledge’ doesn’t work for those who cannot acquire it or those who are condemned to face the dangers that come with it. This is essential reading.
(The writer is publishing his first novel in October 2016)