In the Light of What We Know

What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend and only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. Albert Einstein

Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know, is a magnificent book. Not for the story that meanders about in a disjointed fashion. But for the ideas, the abundance of ideas and the questions that lead only to more ideas and questions.

It is a philosophical tour-de-force and if you like philosophical fiction, In the Light of What We Know will delight you, as it did for me on almost every one of its 500 pages.

The story is straightforward: one day a bedraggled man arrives at the south Kensington (London) door of a well-healed investment banker. The nameless narrator soon recognizes Zafar, his great friend at Oxford and later in the New York and London financial world.

Zia Haider Rahman was born in Bangladesh, was raised in poverty, came to England as a boy, where his father was a bus conductor. He gained a place at Oxford, excelled in mathematics, went on to study at Cambridge and Yale and eventually worked in finance, thereafter as an international human rights lawyer.

In these respects his life mirrors that of the fictional Zarfar. It appears as if the nameless narrator is in fact, the author, with Zafar his fictional counterpart, and the two in an autobiographical dialogue to understand the life of Zia Haider Rahman.

Zafar is invited to stay at the narrator’s home as long as he wants and the two close friends begin talking, day after day, about their respective lives, mostly Zafars’ who eventually left investment banking to become a lawyer and later an NGO representative in Afghanistan.

Ideas abound from the first words, the first chapter. At the beginning of each chapter, Rahman cites one or more epigraphs. In the first there is one on Exile:

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever. Edward W. Said, “Reflections on Exile.”

Then early in that chapter there is the first on mathematics, it’s beauty, the satisfaction it brings to Zafar and one of the many discussions of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem:

Described as the greatest mathematical discovery of the last century, 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. In a sense, then, I have sat down to venture somewhere undiscovered, without the certainty that it is discoverable.

This is preceded by one of the equally frequent reflections on memory:

At the time, the details of those moments did not impress themselves individually upon my consciousness; only later, when I started to put things down on paper, did they give themselves up to the effort of reflection.

And it is like this in virtually every chapter, sometimes on every consecutive page. It took me forever to read the book, as I had to pause, read the passage again, make note of it (highlight in the Kindle version I was reading) and ponder, sometimes until I took up the book again.

The narrator’s life is in shambles, his childless marriage has all but ended, as has his work as an mortgage-backed securities trader, where his dealings in complex derivatives has been called into question. He realizes that the choices he made failed to express his truest self and he never needed the money anyway, as he had been favored with a family fortune. And so he wonders if in recounting Zafar’s life he might learn something about how things could have been better.

I am reminded of a similar question Pascal Mercier poses in his novel, Night Train to Lisbon, while writing about the life of the Portuguese scholar and physician, Amadeau de Prado. In The Goldsmith of Words, Prado asks, Can we better understand ourselves by studying the life of someone else? The question leads Gregorious, the protagonist of Night Train to Lisbon to abandon his post at his school in Basel in a quest to learn as much as he could about Prado, his family, friends and life he led in Lisbon.

We realize how difficult it is to know another person or our self and how often we misunderstand one another. The narrator of In the Light of What We Know realizes this in his effort to understand the life of his friend. Yet, throughout the novel, as Sebald noted “…the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered.”

The narration, which really resists any summary, also includes a fair amount of Zafar’s on and off love affair with Emily Hampton-Wyvern, whose father was an eminent judge and the family of an entirely different class than Zafar’s. The difficult relationships between the classes in England underlies much of Rahman’s characterization of Zafar and his thwarted loved affair with Emily.

In the Light of What We Know comes face-to-face with the limits of knowledge, of memory, perception, knowing our self, international aid programs, etc. That is the point of its obsession with Godel’s Theorem: “Within any given system there are claims which are true, but which cannot be proven to be true.”

In this respect, the novel is also a fictional account of this mathematical truth. It reminds us over and over that we know less than we think we do, that metaphors are a poor method of reaching the truth, that memories are often distorted and refashioned over time and that doubt and intellectual modesty is the source of wisdom.

Zafar had set himself to the pursuit of knowledge, and it is apparent to me now, in a way it was not before, that he had done so not in order to “better himself,” as the expression goes, but in order to lay ground for his feet to stand upon; in order, that is, to go home, somewhere, and take root. I believe that he had failed in this mission and had come to see, as he himself said in so many words, that understanding is not what this life has given us, that answers can only beget questions, that honesty commands a declaration not of faith but ignorance, and that the only mission available to us, one laid to our charge, if any hand was in it, is to let unfold the questions, to take to the river knowing not if it runs to the sea, and accept our place as servants of life.