Saturday, November 28, 2015

Life is more than what we know (Books - In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman)

A well-to-do Londoner, his marriage and his job as an investment banker in ruins as the economy collapses in 2008, receives a visit.  Zafar, whom he knew in college, is of Bangladeshi birth, an orphan, a mathematical prodigy, an Oxford graduate, and a human rights lawyer. Agitated, traveling only with a backpack, Zafar arrives at our narrator's home and tells the remarkable story of how he came to be as he is now - a tale of contemporary Asian politics, English colonialism, and the Incompleteness Theorem of mathematician Kurt Godel.

In In the Light of What we Know by Zia Haider Rahman (Picador, 2014) story- telling itself is an important part of the story. Both who we are and how we're known, it explains, are narrative constructions.

In conversation, I only see the man as he presents himself to me as he responds within the present and history that there is between him and me.  We are not each one person but number at least as many as those whom we know.   

My thoughts and sense experience used to hop from one thing to another, as if the world was just coming at me with meaningless stimuli, one after another.  I couldn't latch on to a thought and then be carried by it as it moved into new territory.  To do that, I think you need a narrative self inside you connecting you with experience, telling you how you fit into the subjective encounter with what you're seeing and attaching whatever significance it might hold for you.  In those days, it was as if this narrative self had decided to go on vacation, leaving me without continuity of thought and feeling
Zafar is a keeper of notebooks and has recorded his story in great detail.  The dissolution of the narrator's marriage and job have left him with a lot of time on his hands to listen, to read the notebooks, and turn them into a book  In a third-person narrative the perspective of remove can allow the reader to feel like a first-hand witness to the story, but in first-person, the introduction of an 'I' begs a question - who?  And then, how did this story come to be written and end up the volume in my hands?  If such a perspective works, it reveals not just one but two characters.  The Great Gatsby is such a story and we come to know at least as much about Nick Caraway as we do about Jay Gatsby, but in Rahman's story, the existence of the narrator seems a devise for Zafar to rattle on pedantically about mathematics, landmass representation on world maps, and Yiddish linguistics, quoting e.e. cummings and Desmond Tutu.

The layers of narrative function eloquently in themselves, but Rahman explains the relationship of narrative to identity, as well as the outcomes of numerous cognitive psychology studies and why credit default swaps resulted in the market crash.  These could have accrued into something more than the sum of their parts and revealed what holds meaning for and changes the two human beings in this novel, especially the narrator, because only then would I know why  Zafar is so important to him.

The events of Zafar's tale are compelling by themeselves and, were it not for that, I would not have stayed with this novel to the end.  Rahman's story about two men hoping to understand themselves and looking in all the wrong places while interesting, never quite succeeded for me because the author didn't use literature to tie together all the facts that Zafar had absorbed into something bigger than a series of explanations.  Godel's incompleteness theorem evidently expresses that what we can know falls short of what is true, but art can create an experience that transcends that truth and that promise was never delivered.  I could never shake the feeling that it was the author showing off his knowledge rather than Zafar.  Revealing what feels true is about more than explaining what is true and Rahman's novel never rose above explaining. 

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