Indian soldiers fire on Pakistani positions during the India-Pakistan War of 1971. Photo: Getty
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The lasting consequences of buried, unspeakable horror

The primal damaging act in this novel is the appalling violence meted out by West Pakistan during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971, in particular the systematic campaign of rape.

In the Light of What We Know 
Zia Haider Rahman
Picador, 576pp, £16.99

“In the light of what we know” is a slippery phrase. It suggests that knowledge illuminates – enough, perhaps, for action – but also that it is partial, incomplete. We might know more or better later. Knowledge is not synonymous with truth.

These sound like abstract concerns but incomplete knowledge is a force of devas­tation in Zia Haider Rahman’s troubled and troubling debut novel, a wide-ranging examination of global politics, rootlessness and post-colonial guilt that travels from Bangladesh to Oxford, Kabul to New York, and that has already drawn comparisons with Sebald, Conrad and Waugh and been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize.

This is a novel that plays knowingly with form, with the things that novels do, and it begins in time-honoured fashion with a knock at the door. On the inside: the unnamed narrator, an investment banker from a wealthy Pakistani family. Raised in Princeton by academic parents, funnelled through Eton and Oxford, he is the ­epitome of multicultural privilege, although both his marriage and career are in free fall. On the outside: a gaunt, haggard, agitated man, carrying his possessions in two small bags, who rather than introducing himself lurches into a disjointed lecture on the mathe­matician Kurt Gödel. But this in itself is indicative and, after a moment of confusion, the narrator realises that he is looking at his long-lost, brilliant friend Zafar.

Inside and outside: everything that follows is about position, about stacked cards and legacies that cannot be outpaced. The lives of the friends are intertwined by the sort of bonds that leave marks, if not actual scars. Their stories are lashed together textually, too. The book purports to be the narrator’s retelling of Zafar’s complicated life, delivered in increasingly heated taped conversations and bolstered by the gift of Zafar’s notebooks, crammed with quotations from the kind of novels imitated here.

Zafar’s story, which takes in Bangladesh’s war of independence, the world of high finance, an aristocratic girlfriend and the reconstruction of Afghanistan, emerges slowly from a digressionary maze. There are asides on axolotls, Mercator maps, the fiction of Graham Greene. Even a discussion between two workmen about the uses of a Pozidriv bit serves as the occasion for a lecture on names and wisdom.

This extraordinary convolution extends to language itself. In the Light of What We Know is written in a curiously fussy, fastidious style, which the narrator explicitly describes as being modelled on Zafar’s speech, its “south Asian sensibility, as if he had learned English grammar from Victorian textbooks”. It is pompous, stilted, evasive and not always easy to follow, yet its glacial progress is a statement about emotional burdens and the limits of confession.

Discussing the rats that occupied his boyhood kitchen, Zafar says: “I can recall nothing of the other half [of the room] . . . because whenever I entered the kitchen I kept my eyes away from it; I never looked that way. There is nothing for my eyes to remember. From time to time, I might catch a scuffling sound, or from a scurry or scratch I would see a grey thread, a spark of static, at the perimeter of my vision.”

These dead zones are where trauma occurs. The primal damaging act here – likewise evaded, glimpsed in flashes – is the appalling violence meted out by West Pakistan during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971, in particular the systematic campaign of rape that resulted in tens of thousands of unwanted children. This buried, unspeakable horror has lasting consequences, both on Zafar’s life and on the world through which he moves.

Rahman deftly unpicks these wounding threads, reserving his greatest rage for the do-gooder westerners, the “invading army of new missionaries” who pour into Afghanistan, certain that they have the power and knowledge to fix other people’s lives. “The only good that an absence of malice guarantees is a clear conscience,” Zafar remarks.

This is admirable and ambitious. Yet there is something disquieting about the way women are presented. Almost always beautiful, they are described in the reductive, repetitive terms of a Dan Brown novel, whether the voice is the narrator’s or Zafar’s. Payne: “Beneath this she wore a white cotton shirt, with upturned collars, fitted to her figure, tapering down to a narrow waist and cinched into her skirt.” Emily: “She was wearing a fitted shirt, narrowing below her shoulders and cinching her waist.” Lauren: “It would be disingenuous of me not to confess that what was most striking about Lauren were her breasts. I would have bet my bottom dollar it was a push-up bra that made those flawless curves.”

Perhaps this is supposed to demonstrate how the damage of misogyny is passed on, a reading that coincides with the sickening offstage conclusion of Zafar’s story. But it leaves an unwelcome taste. I, for one, would have settled for fewer quotations from Naipaul and Roth if it had meant that Lauren could have possessed a personality as well as a pair of flawless breasts. 

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Trip to Echo Spring” (Canongate, £10.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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Only Drake could wow the O2 by pointing out random audience members' clothing

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.

On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the ­lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?

“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.

So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.

But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the ­Michael Bublé of hip-hop?

Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.

Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.

The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.

Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”

She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution