In his New Yorker review of Zia Haider Rahman’s “dazzling début” novel, In the Light of What We Know, James Wood draws attention to the author’s extraordinary life:
at first sight, [Rahman] would appear to be an exhausting overachiever: born in rural Bangladesh, educated at Oxford, Cambridge, Munich, and Yale, he has worked, the publisher’s note tells us, as ‘an investment banker on Wall Street and as an international human-rights lawyer.’
This is a complex novel. It begins in 2008 when Zafar, the central character, appears on the doorstep of the narrator’s home in South Kensington looking a wreck. The two are now well into their forties and haven’t seen each other in years. They met and became friends at Oxford. Since the narrator’s wife has left him and he is alone in his large house, he invites Zafar to stay with him. As Zafar proceeds to tell his story, the narrative not only moves back and forth between the characters but backwards and forwards in time. The effect becomes increasingly confusing, and deliberately so. Although the novel is ostensibly about Zafar, we also learn about the narrator’s history. There are aspects of their combined stories that resonate with the author’s life story.
As Wood notes, readers would naturally assume that
Rahman is extremely privileged, but he wasn’t always. He was born not in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, but in a rural village, a place perhaps described by a phrase in this novel: ‘a corner of that corner of the world—if a corner can have a corner.’ He came to England as a small boy, after the 1971 war for independence. According to the Guardian, his father worked as a London bus conductor; Rahman spent some time squatting in ‘a derelict building in Marylebone, before moving to a council estate’ (subsidized housing). But he earned a place at Oxford, where he studied mathematics; one can only imagine the paroxysms of distance suffered by the young student, as he attempted to measure the gap between his life with his immigrant parents and his life at Balliol College, one of the wealthiest and most entitled of the Oxford colleges. A generation or two after V. S. Naipaul made the long journey from Trinidad to Oxford, Rahman reprised it—this time, perhaps, with class rather than race as the dominant embattlement. Yet, to judge from the sharply autobiographical atmosphere of this novel, the dialectic of sudden privilege was probably much as Naipaul had experienced it more than three decades earlier: the lucky recipient bound to judge his old home critically, seeing it, with fresh eyes, from the unjust luxury of his new home; bound also to judge his new home critically, seeing it from the unjust impoverishment of his old one; and now effectively estranged from either place.
Although he has no name, we learn that the narrator is a Pakistani-American, born in Princeton, NJ, where his father taught. It is the narrator who becomes an investment banker, but his career is derailed during the 2008 financial crisis, when he is betrayed by his partners and employer and made a scapegoat. But it is Zafar, who was born in a remote corner of rural Bangladesh, whose life unravels and whose personal history is more closely aligned with Rahman’s. In telling his story, what we eventually learn from Zafar is how he finally became consumed by rage. It’s not just that he was marginalized at Oxford because of his racial background, but rather that his class difference marked him as other. It seems that in order to vent his rage, Raman was obliged to divide his own conflicted self into two entities. At the end of the novel, Zafar disappears; presumably he has returned to his native land. The way I read this is that Rahman, in order to complete his precarious assimilation into western culture, had to erase this part of his identity. To his credit, Raman succeeds in giving Zafar voice in this remarkable novel.
A broader but relevant dimension of the novel is that the story of this friendship begins in the late 1980s but builds to a climax during the first decade and a half of the 21st century. Not only does the story draw on the financial crisis of 2008, but much of the plot’s development takes place in Afghanistan following the events of September 11, 2001. Thematically, we witness the machinations and corruption of the latest incarnation of Empire and how the political landscape impact on the characters lives..