In the Light of What We Know (Zia Haider Rahman)

Article by mark

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ISBN: 9780374175627
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Farrar Straus Giroux - April 22nd, 2014

Zia Haider Rahman's brilliant debut novel IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW deals with friendship, exile and the price we pay for the troubled times in which we live. Those, of course, are broad strokes, for this novel bristles with ideas and handles a myriad of subjects--the 2008 financial collapse, cognitive science, Englishness, class, Bangladesh's violent history, 9/11, geopolitics, Islamic terrorism and more. The ambition of the book is astounding, and Rahman's handling of these topics is equally so. Still, this is a very approachable novel--not only a book to be admired, but one to be read and savored. 

The story begins in 2008, when the narrator--fortyish, in a crumbling marriage--receives a visitor at his London home: Zafar, an old friend from his college days at Oxford. They had been close at one time before Zafar disappeared, making his last decade a mystery to his friends and colleagues alike. After a shower and a meal, Zafar opens up to his old friend, and so begins this inspired novel, a story circulating ever-closer to a nameless and inevitable violence. 

As a human rights lawyer and investment banker on Wall Street, Rahman is highly attuned to the language and motives of these worlds. Zafar's story unfolds, shifting forwards and backwards, starting with a recent UN mission in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and going back to his childhood, in England and in his native village in Bangladesh. Zafar's tale is awash with place and incident, from Kabul to New York to Islamabad, cities peopled with mercenaries, military bureaucrats and dubious financial types. Zafar's story also allows Rahman to digress, and his erudition is both enviable and encyclopedic: map-making as poetry, mathematics as pure knowledge and the mysteries and motivations of friendship. 

This novel, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's AMERICANAH and Teju Cole's OPEN CITY, illuminates the voices of contemporary exile, of rootlessness and displacement. The reasons for this exile vary--war, famine, shifting political landscapes--but they herald a new type of literature, a post-post-colonial literature, as it were. Not unlike V.S. Naipaul and W.G. Sebald before him, Rahman's exciting and precise storytelling is made all the better for its concern for the various guises of emigration.

According to a recent UN report, the number of refugees in the world has surpassed fifty million for the first time since the end of World War II. The sheer magnitude of these voices is too large to ignore.With books like IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW, you don't want to. Rahman is a writer of the highest order, with a tone many authors spend a career trying to achieve. In short, this is a novel not to be missed. 

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