Best Book of The Year

It’s the time of the year when readers write about their favorite book(s) of the year. All told it’s been a good year for both fiction and non-fiction books. Anyone who doubts this need only have a look at the large group mentioned on two Guardian pages here and here, as well as two in the Times here and here.

My favorite book of the year, In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman, an impressive philosophical novel was mentioned a couple of times. I wrote about it here and will read it again once the paperback version becomes available.

Joyce Carol Oates also gave the novel high marks recently in her review in The New York Review of Books (10/24/14).

What struck me about Oates’ two-page review was that none of the topics she dealt with were discussed in my review. For example, Rahman’s novel often reminded her of others. She felt the mordant tone of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness throughout the novel.

It also reminded her of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the novels of dislocation and inquiry of Graham Greene and W. G Sebald and in the “suspense of its espionage-driven conclusion, the spy novels of John le Carre.”

I read the novel without such a literary background, a background that I never acquired in the first place. My reading was that of a naïve individual drawn to such a novel by its truths based on my study of epistemology as an undergraduate major in philosophy.

My only reference to another novel was to Pascal Mercier’s discussion in Night Train to Lisbon of how it might be possible to better understanding yourself by studying the life of another person, as the narrator of Rahman’s novel studies the life of his friend Zafar.

Oates continues in this view by noting the many ideas cited in the novel, reminded her of Mann’s Magic Mountain. Yet she doesn’t mention which of the ideas had this effect.

She does unfold the story of Zafar’s life, from his birth in Bangladesh to his arrival in Oxford, study of mathematics, work as a derivatives trader, doomed love affair with the temptress Emily Hampton-Wyvern and work with an NGO in Afghanistan. Oates’ emphasis in her account dwells on the class differences that continue to rule much of English life. She writes:

“In vain we wait for Zafar to consider that his infatuation with a member of the English aristocracy is a narcissistic projection of his own: a willful attempt to appropriate a person, and a family of a social class perceived as higher than his own, thus more desirable.”

While I was aware of the importance of this difference and the way it contributed to Zafar’s deep anger and scorn of the English aristocracy, ruling class, and the international aid programs in Afghanistan, it was not a subject I wrote about in my review.

Toward the end of the novel the narrator says his friend appears to him now as several Zafars--the Zafar of their college days together, the bedraggled Zafar who reappeared at his front door one day, and the Zafar revealed by the fragmented stories he tells the narrator and those he wrote in the pages of his notebook.

In like fashion, most readers of this novel view it from their own background, mine from a philosophical perspective, while Oates from her literary/writing tradition. Nevertheless, we both agree that In the Light of What We Know is a powerful novel, a rather unusual work of fiction in this day and age, with a great deal of insight about human relationships.

To view a BBC Interview with Rahman go here: