On the subject of, In the Light of What We Know

The fact he’s an unreliable narrator doesn’t mean you can discredit his voice // The fact you can’t discredit his voice doesn’t mean you have to endorse it.

If you follow me on twitter, you will have had the (mis)fortune over the past couple of weeks to witness me tweeting my reading of Zia Haider Rahman’s book, In the Light of What We Know. I often tweet about what I’m reading, but with this book it felt different: like I had to get stuff out of my head and into the aether in able to actually be able to process it.

I loved it. I keep trying to describe it to people.

It’s about… yeah, no, it’s about. pretty much everything.

In the way the conversation, especially in the early chapters, free associates from topic to topic, as something explains or illuminates something else, felt a lot like the way my brain moves around when it’s thinking at (what I think is) its best. For a long time, despite my enjoyment, I worried that the book was going to flatter to deceive; that it was going to end up feeling hollow if all it did was to make me feel smart.

But in the end, I think all the interconnections show something about the world that a more linear narrative about an immigrant from Bangladesh wouldn’t: the very interconnectedness of all the things that make up a person’s experience of the world, and the world a person experiences.

Global finance, international development, the war on terror, education, mathematics, the immigrant experience, gender, class and privilege, Bach… But mostly the book is about knowledge and the fact that knowledge, in its factual, rational, explicable shape, cannot – fully, really – reveal truth in and about our worlds. Which is why it starts and ends with Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, which the character Zafar describes as beautiful.

it is a theorem with the simple message that the farthest reaches of what we can ever know fall short of the limits of what is true, even in mathematics.

It is about intellectual knowledge, and how it is impossible to know all things, to prove all things, and to be certain of all things, using our reason. Gödel proves that. But it is also about experiential knowledge, and the impossibility of knowing fully and truly from our experiences, because we only have our experiences. Even if we hear other people’s experiences and accord them equal value with our own view of the world, which we must, to stand a chance of understanding more about what is going on in the world, we can’t ever get out of our own lives. Our first, instinctive, reactions will always emerge in the light of what we know.

The story, essentially, is the story of the narrator’s failure to know a man he regards as one of his oldest friends. Of the inability of that friend, Zafar, to shore up a secure ‘self’ no matter how much he learns (there is a sense in Zafar’s ruminations about the nature of the self, much of which I think stretch towards truth, that he is struggling to justify his failure to ‘fit’ in the world in which he mostly grew up). Of both their inabilities to innately, immersively, understand either the western societies that they’ve been educated and grown to adulthood in or those from which they originate, and those societies’ inability to understand the part of Asia from which they have come. And of our inability as readers to know the true nature of any of the characters and events they tell us about, especially anything pertaining to Emily.

Ah, Emily. Emily Hampton-Wyvern.
I spent a lot of the book worrying about Emily, the woman with whom Zafar has a complicated on-again-off-again relationship. The way Zafar talks about Emily, and the way that the narrator confirms this account of her, make her cold and manipulative, her presence in Afghanistan a throw-back to the worst tendencies of Britain’s imperial past, with a refusal to allow her to be a complicated, real human being, whose motivations and actions might be problematic, but not deliberately malignant. It is a representation of a character that feels incredibly mean – both petty and cruel, and I desperately hoped that the author would reveal both Zafar and the narrator as unreliable, that they would betray themselves and this account of Emily, that we would be able to be able to see her as more than they were willing to allow her to be. I read, furiously, through the two first-person narratives, determined to find any hint that they were being unfair to Emily. I didn’t even necessarily care if I ended up liking Emily, but I was determined to defend her against Zafar.

I wonder how many men read this book like this? I know I’m not the only woman, if only because I read a review of the book after finishing that also picks up on the sexism inherent in the portraits of Emily and Meena (the narrator’s wife), and in which the author argued that she could not see enough doubt cast on the two narrators’ reliablilty to undermine it, nor in the author’s concern with this, as he promoted the book. And indeed, on the surface of the narrative, Emily does not change. Zafar, in moments, is willing as the novel goes on to give her motivations slightly more credit, but this is undermined by her actions, which cause him – our protagonist – pain. But. I felt that both men betrayed themselves enough for us to doubt their presentation of Emily, and to help a girl get through the final two chapters.

Throughout, the narrator is unable to describe women without focusing on their appearance (especially their breasts and whether or not they’re wearing push-up bras). He is fascinated by his wife, Meena, when she seems very different to him, but then he sees her ‘change’ in her career – or rather, become more his equal as she builds a career – and dismisses her as shallow, for betraying who she was, while never demanding the same depth of himself. He puts Payne on a pedestal, but also at a distance – he might want her, but he would never want to be with her, because she wouldn’t need anything he could bring to the table. And he categorises Emily by her family, from a class that he is both within and without, believes he knows her and dismisses her for being unable to break out of her background (although he is equally unable to do so, and benefits equally from similar privileges), before ultimately dismissing her and her feelings for Zafar (whatever they might be), because of an event that enables him to assume that she does not care as much for Zafar as he does for her.

Zafar, meanwhile, tries to know more and more about Emily, but what he knows doesn’t help him to understand her and the fascination she holds for him, and as his attempts to know her fail him, and his fascination with her conflicts with what he knows about the world Emily operates in (in the UN, in development, in Afghanistan, in 2002) and how much damage this work can do ( I say can, I don’t think that the damage is inevitable, in the way that Zafar does – although I acknowledge that it is not uncommon) he becomes more and more frustrated. Zafar mentally accords Emily a level of control over her own behaviour that is probaly untrue, because he seems unable to prevent himself from giving her a level of control over him that he is uncomfortable with. And in the end that tension breaks, dramatically.

And oh, the ending of this book. As I read it, I flailed at the air; howled at the book, raged at the fact of another damn book going down this road in the final pages (Open City, by Teju Cole, which I read last summer, takes a similar development, and inspired a similar rage), with a fury that felt like it had nowhere to go, except to clarify exactly what the author thought he was doing: to try and ensure that he wasn’t being as casual about it as the narrator is in the final pages.

this, however I know about the theorem: that is takes us to the point at which two roads diverge, that we have to choose and the choice is not a happy one.

If the ending of Cole’s book is infuriating, because the narrator refuses to acknowledge his past actions, the ending of this book is infuriating because the narrator acknowledges what happens, but brushes it away. in the light of what he knows – or believes he knows – intellectually, and in his experience of both Emily and Zafar – which is that Zafar is, if not justified, at least not fully culpable, because, as the both men argue, there is never one simple cause. The narrator’s choice is, effectively to let Zafar off the hook, ‘because of reasons,’ as the Internet might say. He cannot ‘prove’ his choice, but he feels it to be the truth. And of course this happens, all the damn time, which is one of the reasons why it is so infuriating to read.

The way the author allows Zafar and the narrator to be unreliable on the subject of women, generally, and Emily in particular, suggests he is not as casual about the finale as his narrator.  He does, I think make it incumbent on the reader to reject or accept that casual-ness – to pick a road, or relationship, or response to Zafar and to Emily after what happens. And I wonder if he enables some of his readers to too easily slide into the same choice that the narrator makes. Because I had to read pretty determinedly in favour of Emily to make a different choice.

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