Review: a mesmerising journey into the life of a brilliant polymath

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 December, 2014, 12:10am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 December, 2014, 2:10pm

In the Light of What We Know
by Zia Haider Rahman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In Zia Haider Rahman's debut novel, In the Light of What We Know, a young, Oxford-educated, Bangladeshi-born British human rights lawyer named only as Zafar befriends a colonel in the Pakistani army against the backdrop of the past decade's war in Afghanistan.

"What is strange to me is that although I know a fair deal about you, I'm still puzzled as to who you really are," the colonel tells the novel's protagonist, prompting him to ask: "Do you think I'm involved in some kind of subterfuge? A masquerade?" The officer dismisses the suggestion. "No, my boy, you are so unsure of your bearings that you wonder if you're pretending to be the person you actually are," he says. "I see it in your face - the searching assessment, which you hide well but unsuccessfully."

A mathematics whiz who ditched a Wall Street investment banking career to become a lawyer, Zafar takes the stinging remark in his stride, not least because he appears to agree with it. "Our actions are always questions," he says towards the novel's end, pithily revealing its pathos: "If it's true that our will is free, how is it that we do things we regret?"

In the Light of What We Know is a mesmerising journey into the life of a brilliant polymath modelled on Rahman himself. Born in rural Bangladesh and educated at Oxford, Cambridge, Munich and Yale, Rahman, too, has a background in advanced mathematics, investment banking and international human rights law. "Most of the novelists I've loved reading - [Joseph] Conrad and [W.G.] Sebald, for instance - have written books with strong biographical connections between the author and some or other character," he says when asked if his novel is autobiographical.

Combining politics, religion, war, science, history, geography, class, ethnicity, language, neocolonialism and career, In the Light of What We Know is a 497-page tour de force notable for its intellectualism and nobility. Narrated by an unnamed, upper-class Pakistani-American character who also studied maths at Oxford along with Zafar, the story explores the age-old themes of friendship and betrayal.

Although Zafar is a thoroughly Anglicised character, he empathises with ordinary Afghans while working in their homeland as a human rights lawyer. His knowledge of manipulative investment bankers and ruthless power-brokers creates in him a feeling of guilt and powerlessness about human oppression. Zafar also suffers from a sense of alienation - partly the result of his voluntary but wrenching exile from his roots in Bangladesh.

"To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul," reads a quote by French philosopher Simone Weil, one of dozens of beguiling epigraphs tied to the novel's narrative.

Rahman's novel opens with a tribute to the late Edward W. Said, the exiled Palestinian-American intellectual who coined the word "Orientalism" to describe the pervasive influence of Western power and imperialism: "The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever."

One of the recurring themes in the novel is Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, named in honour of Kurt Gödel, an Austrian exile who was a close friend and colleague of Albert Einstein at Princeton. The theorem states that there are many claims in the world that are true but for which proofs can never be found.

It's a humbling idea that offers a charming hint about how a subject can serve as a bond for friendship. "For Zafar, mathematics was always about the journey and not the destination," the narrator mused one day. "It is a world without borders, without time, and I see now what power such a thing might have over the psyche of someone as rootless."