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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The NS Q&A: Naomi Alderman on Oprah, Ovid, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer

"The worst things that ever happened to me were before I was 20."

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on a striped blue-and-white deckchair with a migraine. My mother gave me orange squash. We’ve worked out (from the deckchair) that I was 18 months old.

Who was your childhood hero?

I was incredibly inspired by Oprah Winfrey as a young woman. Her childhood (sexual and physical abuse, teenage pregnancy, the death of her baby) was traumatic, and her subsequent life has been defined by hard work, talent and one glorious victory after another. People in the UK can sneer about her because we are terrified of emotions and she’s not perfect (who is?), but she introduced me to the possibility of improving one’s internal life. A miracle.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. It’s as if he managed to voyage back a few hundred years and just take notes.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Florence Nightingale, who was a terrible nurse but a brilliant statistician and wielded her public image to influence politicians to improve health care. I wish that she were still around, skewering ministers misusing statistics on Question Time.

When were you happiest?

Now. The worst things that ever happened to me were before I was 20. It has been slow, hard-won improvement since then.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Ovid. Both are intensely serious, as well as funny. Both wield myths to talk about their modern world. Both are subjects I’d like to revise.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?

The future. As far as possible. Not to live, though – just to visit.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’d like [the 16th-century Dutch painter] Jan van Scorel, please, with the same affection and knowingness as his portrait of Agatha van Schoonhoven. They lived together and had six children, even though he was a canon and couldn’t marry.

What’s your theme tune?

A Jewish song that goes: “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor . . .” It translates as: “It’s not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to refrain from it.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? And have you followed it?

I know how this sounds, but my deceased grandmother appeared to me in a dream once and told me something I can’t share. But I did follow her advice and it was excellent. (Thanks, Booba and/or my subconscious.)

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit. I want to start a campaign called “Back in 30” – to get us back into the EU by 2030, when Remainers (or Rejoiners) will almost certainly be a convincing majority.

What single thing would make your life better?

I wish that Gordon Brown had called a snap election in 2007.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I think I would have enjoyed running a business (and I sort of do run one now, with the video games). I’ve got the brain for systems and a head for figures. But all these daydreams end with: “And I could carve out time to write.”

Are we all doomed?

No. The species will continue, whatever apocalypse we manage to unleash. It just won’t be much fun to live through.

Naomi Alderman’s novel “The Power” (Penguin) is shortlisted for the Baileys Prize

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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