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

BBC
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit