Amitava Kumar reviews Zia Haider Rahman's ‘In the Light of What We Know’ (photo by Katherine Rose):
In diverse genres, but primarily in fiction, writers from India and (especially after the attacks of Sept. 11) from Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as Sri Lanka and Nepal, have released work that is riveting, often formally inventive and certainly relevant. Mohsin Hamid, Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy, Suketu Mehta, Sonali Deraniyagala, Mohammed Hanif, Monica Ali, Samrat Upadhyay, Nadeem Aslam, Rahul Bhattacharya, Siddhartha Mukherjee — these are only some of the glittering names to glide into view alongside older, bigger planetary bodies like Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, Vikram Seth and Anita Desai.
“In the Light of What We Know” is a debut novel whose author has worked as an investment banker on Wall Street. Like its protagonist, Zafar, Zia Haider Rahman was born in rural Bangladesh and educated at Oxford and other places before following a career as a trader and lawyer. The novel’s narrator is a Pakistani-American friend of Zafar’s from his days at the university, a rogue banker in London who has taken a fall after making a lot of money for his firm from mortgage-backed securities. The narrator’s task is to listen as Zafar tells his story after showing up at the door early one morning in 2008, disheveled and apparently destitute.
Zafar’s narration shifts registers — “this fluctuation from crystal clarity of exposition to a barely restrained fury” — and folds into lengthy but fascinating digressions. Like the narrator of W. G. Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn,” whose erudite riffing on anything from herrings to the execution of Roger Casement allowed him to make melancholic observations about the horrors of history, the Zafar of Rahman’s strange and brilliant novel is at ease drawing sharp lessons from subjects as varied as derivatives trading and the role of metaphor in determining the fate of pigeons.