Zia Haider Rahman is erudite and articulate - but no novelist
By his epigraphs shall you know him. In his first novel, In the Light of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman chooses Edward W. Said and Herman Melville, so it’s no surprise that by page five the Raj has checked in and only a few pages later we get Paki-bashing skinheads, and not just Paki-bashing skinheads but Combat 18 Paki-bashing skinheads who, ironically, get bashed (although to be fair, lefty skinheads get their due later on). We are also instructed that the real villains of the brutal 1971 Pakistan-Bangladesh war were, of course, the Americans. And then there are a lot more pages.
A graduate of Balliol College, Zia Haider Rahman worked in finance and then became an international human rights lawyer, so it’s not surprising that the two protagonists of his novel are Oxford-educated Asians, one from Pakistan, one from Bangladesh, one from a privileged background, one from the humblest beginnings, who work in finance and international concern.
In the Light of What We Know has all the trappings of a Booker-mission. It has that sweep of history and geography that seems to arouse Booker judges. Does it high-five contemporary significance, the stuff of heated dinner-party debate, events such as 9/11, the subprime crisis or Donald Rumsfeld’s epistemology? Check.
Does it condemn that evil Mercator projection, that disses the land mass of Africa? Check. Is it generally groovily global, do we whizz around Kabul, Wall Street, Princeton, rural Bangladesh? Check. Does it dispense with quotation marks for dialogue to show that the writer is on a no-holds-barred artistic mission, that the author is part of team James Joyce, and definitely not team Jeffrey Archer? Check.
Are we treated to tasty chunks of intellectual pancetta such as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the Poggendorff illusion and Bach? Check. Do we get those hip David Foster Wallace footnotes? Check. We can’t have a serious literary novel without notebooks, are there notebooks? Check. Does it ask what’s it all about then, eh? Check: “So we dive headlong into becoming heroes, becoming the big swinging dick on Wall Street or the rock star or the hot-shot human-rights lawyer. Which is about making our lives stand for something that our intelligence can grasp, saving us from confronting what we fear might betrue . . . that we’re accidental pieces of flesh, mutton without meaning.”
But it’s odd that for someone who’s worked in that field, Zia Haider Rahman doesn’t offer the reader any fresh understanding or entertainment about the iniquities of bankers, certainly none that the reader couldn’t have picked up from the FT or the evening news. It’s hardly a staggering insight that the Financial Service Authority was laughably incompetent. Maybe the novel just can’t compete on the reportage front any more.
The one thing I learned from In the Light of What We Know was the reason for the superiority of the Pozidriv screw. The narrator reflects:
My doubts weren’t really about the quality of her playing, not even at root whether I was capable of forming a judgment — anyone can have a gut reaction, which may be as real as it gets — but my doubts were about whether I had a right. Who was I to think I knew good from bad?
I know what you mean, Zia, but Standpoint is forcing my hand. You can take out any paragraph and the prose is crisp and clear, although there was only one line in the 550 pages that really excited my admiration: “The Saudis are under-maligned.”
Nevertheless, In The Light of What We Know doesn’t work as a novel. It’s a series of musings and anecdotes with a few characters tossed on top; it’s a book written by an intelligent, articulate, educated lawyer who has an extensive library but, on this evidence, not by a novelist.