A lost boy from Bangladesh in New York
I finally decided not to read Zia Haider Rahman’s novel IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW to the end. I had thought it would be fascinating to read a novel written by a real (criminal?) investment banker from Wall Street who started out in life as a poor village boy in Bangladesh, just as the man called Zafar in the novel. Not only that: this Zafar was the son of a Pakistani soldier who raped his Bangladeshi mother during that terrible, genocidal war in 1971 against the secession of Bangladesh (millions of dead, an endless series of war crimes).
The narrator in the novel has no name but he is Zafar’s friend ever since they studied mathematics together in Oxford. This friend, a Pakistani, is a banker but he lives in London, and he is the son of a wealthy family accustomed since his youth to living inside the Pakistani elite of politicians, big entrepreneurs and diplomats travelling freely around the world.
So, all ingredients for some real drama were there: class conflict, memories of the a war in which millions were slaughtered, a rapist’s child, Pakistan as the cause of most of the trouble in Afghanistan, Pakistanis versus Bangladeshis, the role of the imperialist British in that abused region, the financial disasters caused by Wall Street bankers, political Islam.
After I had arrived on page 265 of the novel and still had 320 to go, I was fed up. This Zia is absolutely, totally, pathologically obsessed with class, to which class one belongs, as if this determines everything in life. If the village boy from Bangladesh succeeded to make it to Wall Street in the US, one might assume that this is a prime example of how people can escape their “roots”, their “identity”, their “origins”.
But no. Zafar in the novel is lost forever, not feeling at home anywhere.
Ah, poor Zafar!
Especially because he is doubly cursed, having to live in Britain’s still class-ridden society mirrored by Wall Street’s elite, but also by a just as stupid and cruel class consciousness Bangladeshi or Pakistani style.
I just checked the last pages and yes, Zafar is still unhappy that he has been uprooted from the village life in a poor part of Bangladesh.
The novel goes against all western ideals of the Enlightenment and efforts of social-democratic parties to obtain more equality, better education, more justice and a (democratic) voice for the poor.
In the first pages the narrator suggests that something utterly decisive happened to Zafar in Afghanistan and shortly after his stay there. That’s why I continued to read because I know what happened to me as a westerner during six years in Iraq. But the story about these events is postponed by endless flashbacks on the youth of the narrator and of Zafar, their time in Oxford and New York together, facts and interpretations of the gruesome war of 1971, the life of parents and grandparents. The reader also has to stand descriptions of expensive homes, loose thoughts based on some journalistic grasp of scientific, mathematical, philosophical and religious issues, insights on how Wall Street bankers almost destroyed the world’s economies. And, more importantly than all this, the reader has to involve him- or herself in the story of the women and hopeless marriages of Zafar and the narrator.
As a reader I can forgive a debut novel some shortcomings, but this Zia doesn’t master what we call composition. This novel is just a fast, undemanding collage of snippets. This heavily hyped debut is just an attempt to get attention for a personal problem and force the reader to spend a lot of time on something the writer is unable to express in a forcible way. The novel rambles on, going back and forth in time and the editors of Picador publishing house obviously stopped telling Zia that he should repair, for example, the many literal repetitions. Which means probably, according to my experience as a publisher and editor, that poor Zia is impervious to advice when it comes to novel-writing.
I was reminded of the uncomprehensible novel “Finnegan’s wake” by James Joyce. When I was young and still happy with my fast judgment, I thought it was outrageous that Joyce expected someone to spend years of her life to understand his puzzle. Well, I had readers such as Vladimir Nabokov on my side.
Now I am even more impatient, I realize. I am not ready to spend more than a week to understand a novelist’s story and the insights that come from someone writing true literature and poetry.
Zia, Zafar, I won’t stop you from being so unhappy living in the West. Many of us westerners are, for reasons I deeply know. One of them is the commercial exploitation of everything in our lives – and the novel IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW is one example of that, the exploitation of many people’s uncomfortable feelings about the suffering of poor people elsewhere in the world and the racism and class discrimination faced by immigrants in the West – apart from all the welcoming efforts…
Of course Afghanistan would never resemble Switzerland after twelve years of foreign occupation by whatever armies of whatever democratic states. Nor would Pakistan and Bangladesh after decades of independence and sovereignity. Everyone knew and knows – although still don’t always understand why.
But there is so much to know for sure, Zia.
In life almost every wrong thought, wrong ideology, wrong religion, in short: all illusions in the end cause pain. The one about a lifelong identity is such an illusion.
Real pain corrects us.
Enough. Enough time wasted on someone’s pseudo-pain.
Usually I don’t publish reviews about books that I wouldn’t recommend. But the hype around this novel was too big to ignore…