Reviewed by Victoria Best
Many years ago, when I was teaching literature at Cambridge University, my good friend Kathryn and I used to laugh together about a certain category of ideas, theories and writers that we termed ‘boy hard’. We were referring to the kind of thinking that occurred at the outermost points of knowledge, that was self-consciously and unapologetically complicated and difficult. This is not to say that women were not equally interested in mental gymnastics – after all, both Kathryn and myself had studied and used the kind of theories and philosophies we were talking about. But there was a certain kind of male student/lecturer who lived for it, who championed it, for whom it was utterly beguiling. I do hope a copy of Zia Haider Rahman’s novel makes its way into all of their hands, because I don’t doubt for a moment that they will adore it.
This huge weighty novel about pure mathematics, postcolonialism and banking begins quietly enough. Arriving at the lovely London house of our unnamed narrator is his old college friend, Zafar, whom he has not seen for many years. Zafar appears haggard and overburdened and needs to offload a long, complex history to his old friend, one that will have a sting in its tale. Our narrator, who has recently fallen on hard times himself, having separated from his wife and lost his job in banking due to his promotion of mortgage-backed securities, is more than willing to listen. Using a Dictaphone to record their conversations and Zafar’s diaries, he constructs the rambling and yet strenuously organized narrative we are reading. ‘I came to see that his stories ran together,’ he writes, ‘like the rivers of his boyhood coming from the mountains and forests and the plains, a long way from their sources, but ultimately joined together in one song, a harmony of place and time.’
Although this sounds beautiful, Zafar’s song is one of rage and disintegration after a lifetime spent battling the lack of entitlement caused by the miserable circumstances of his birth. He was born in Sylhet, the back of beyond in Bangladesh, in the wake of the ugly war of independence and fostered by relatives who moved to England to live in poverty. Zafar was a hard-working prodigy, a brilliant mathematician who completed his Oxford degree in two years and then spent a brief spell on Wall Street before becoming an international human rights lawyer. Our narrator has followed a similar trajectory, without quite the brain or the work ethic, and from a much easier social position. His grandfather was Pakistani ambassador to the US and his father is an academic researching physics at Oxford. Privilege and class are going to be the rotten heart of this tale for the way they have dictated the ruling culture and made it opaque and humiliating for the Zafars of the world. The realisation of this begins for him in the halls of Oxford where mere teenagers spoke ‘as if every utterance was borne aloft by God’s grace, as if their opinions resonated reflection and scholarship, effortless superiority in the place of absent effort.’ All this bullshit really gets to Zafar, sours and angers him:
‘This then, right here, against the stone and ivy, beneath leaded windows and time-beaten timbers, is where my hate began. In England, the root of the true, rightly guided power, the essence of aristocratic authority, was not learning but the veneer of knowledge, while projecting genuine ignorance of all that is vulgar.’
For knowledge and its ramifications are absolutely essential to this story. With an obsessive’s mania, Zafar picks apart every incident, every occurrence, in his personal history trying to figure out what can actually be taken from it, tracing back conclusions through the faulty reasoning to the vested interests. In his mind, all knowledge reveals its foundations in assumption and belief working in the interests of privilege and prejudice. Only mathematics stands clear and justified: ‘The mathematician knows that nothing empirical, nothing which we are to perceive in this world, can undermine by so much as one whiff of doubt any mathematical claim, and because he knows this, he is free.’ This one cherished certainty on Zafar’s part has to be considered in the light of the narrator’s history, whose own use of mathematics in the years leading up to the 2008 banking crisis shows that even the most noble of sciences can be corrupted.
Inevitably, Zafar’s tenuous hold on his identity and sense of place in the world comes to grief on a woman. Emily Hampton-Wyvern is an upper-class ice maiden who Zafar first sees when he sneaks into a rehearsal room in Oxford, catching her playing a violin piece with technical mastery and no heart. You might think he’d be warned. But they eventually embark on a messy love affair, all desperation and determination on Zafar’s part and silent ambivalence on Emily’s. We are told right at the start of the narrative that something dreadful has happened in 2002 in Afghanistan when Zafar flew out at Emily’s request to help in some unspecified way with the reconstruction and development project she was involved in. Here, once again, the tedious old story of the West persistently and stupidly attempting to save the East from itself seems about to play out once more. Six years later, Zafar still has not come to terms, or even quite understood, how the political became mixed with the personal to such devastating consequences.
This is a long, powerful book designed to overwhelm the reader, brilliant in its exploration of ideas, spectacular in its execution of set piece scenes, and distinctly dodgy in its gender politics. In his carefully worded tirade, Zafar pulls apart everything down to Emily’s text message style, but fails to see his own tendency to conflate power and authority. Authority in its ideal sense is immune to corruption, whereas power feeds on it. In the final instance, Zafar will cede his pure desire for an authority upon which he can build an honourable sense of self for corrupt power over the body of a woman – the most basic kind exploited by men uncertain of their alpha status since the dawn of time. It’s a dull, tarnished truth that this dazzling book at once manipulates and tries to hide. I encourage women readers to pick up this novel and voice their own response to the debate and the accolades it has already provoked.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Zia Haider Rahman, In The Light of What We Know, (Picador, May 2014) 978-1447231226, 576 pages, hardback.