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6 November 2014updated 29 Jun 2018 11:45am

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.

By Olivia Laing

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.

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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.

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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)