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Known Unknowns of the Class War

A review of Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know

By Naeem Mohaiemen

When you turn to page 186 of In the Light of What We Know, you encounter an illustration. The novel’s two main characters have by this point discussed many things, and readers may have already been craving visual aids. But this is the first time the text is interrupted by a diagram. You sense, therefore, the arrival of a crucial digression.

The illustration is of a diagonal line that runs from the top left corner of the diagram to the bottom right, interrupted mid-way by a vertical rectangle. On the other side of the rectangle, two diagonals slope downward in the same direction as the first, one atop the other. If you are not particular about the condition of your books (as I am not), you will have the urge to fold the page to better work out the optical illusion. It appears as if the descending diagonal line continues, after interruption, along the upper diagonal on the right. But folding would reveal the opposite—that it is actually the second, lower diagonal that it is joined with.

Named “Poggendorff’s illusion,” after the nineteenth-century German physicist Johann Poggendorff who discovered it in a drawing, the illusion is something Zafar, the novel’s British-Bangladeshi protagonist, starts explaining to our unnamed narrator. But as with many other incomplete yet meticulously plotted diversions within Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, Zafar does not finish the story. It is up to the narrator to fill in the gaps, after “consulting pages on the Internet,” as one of the novel’s many Infinite Jest-like footnotes inform us.

Poggendorfff's Illusion
Poggendorfff’s Illusion

Yet, even after the optical dislocation has been explained—in dialogue, in footnote, and in an expansive reference to the similar Müller-Lyer illusion—the reader will be drawn back to page 186. The illusion stubbornly refuses to budge. As Zafar underscores, “Knowing doesn’t fix things.” We might add, too, that knowing doesn’t overcome the desire to have faith in the unknown, the unverifiable. Why have faith in God, for example? Some expected science to free people from faith, but of course it did not work out that way. Immanuel Kant’s idea of the sublime affirmed the capacity of human reason to comprehend and size up that which cannot be perceived by the faculties. Kant described three kinds of emotions evoked by this comprehension: wonder, beauty, and terror. Some volatile combination of all three forms of the sublime permeate the pages of this acidic, inventive novel.

The two protagonists in In the Light of What We Know, Zafar and the British-Pakistani narrator, were friends at Oxford in the late 1980s, drawn to each other as one of the few Asian faces at that elite institution. At some point in their lives, their post-school arcs separated, and they fell out of contact.

The story sets off with the sudden return of Zafar to the narrator’s home in London, and most of the book is taken up with his elliptical and elusive description of the intervening years. The narrator pieces together Zafar’s story—from conversations, from notebooks he leaves behind, and from things he researches on his own. The two characters take turns struggling with the limited horizons of their future—the moment when the smooth journey was interrupted, when things came apart. For our narrator, everything seemed to have “gone right”: posh English school, family wealth (doubtless smuggled out of Pakistan during one of the many military coups), the ideal wife. The decentering takes place after the collapse of his Tom Wolfe-style “masters of universe” finance industry job, twinned with the slow-motion implosion of his marriage (its doomed trajectory reminiscent of Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy). For the other protagonist, Zafar, whose family is from a Bangladeshi village and lacks landed wealth like the narrator, events are always on the edge of a cliff. Even as he assumes the role of host at a dinner, the concealed menace of English sarcasm makes us tense up. Something bad is about to happen, your mind whispers. In the spirit of Poggendorff’s illusion, the book teems with textual illusions as well. Even the novel’s climactic act of intimate violence, inside a room, is only hinted at through two epigraphs. The reader cannot quite connect the lines—interruptions derail us and move our eyes away.

* * *

Both Zafar and the narrator studied mathematics at Oxford, and an obsession with this discipline as the Rosetta Stone for many of this past century’s foibles runs through In the Light of What We Know. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (“a theorem that denies certainty”) is one such concept, and there is a recuperative project at work in the book. While Einstein’s relativity theory, or Crick and Watson’s double helix discovery, gained recognition by being “useful,” Gödel’s theorem became an elegant concept beloved of mathematical thinkers, but unknown to lay audiences. Mathematics provides not only a framework for understanding what is happening to humans and the world around them, but for Zafar it is also a refuge from the relentless class war played out through invisible sorties in British living rooms. It’s why Zafar fervently believes that “mathematics doesn’t care about authority, it doesn’t care about who you are, where you’re from, what your eye color is, or who you’re having supper with.”

But the egalitarian dream of mathematics as the great equalizer is easily undone, here by the collapse of financial markets. I was reminded of the Olympian confidence of financial wizards at the center of another recent novel that pivots off the 2008 financial market crisis—Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men. There, a mathematics graduate who takes a finance job has endless faith in the dream of the supercomputer, programmed to the gills and able to execute thousands of trades faster than a human may ever jot down a thought. Why bother with human inefficiency, aging, and hesitation? High-speed math prevails until, of course, the terrible day when everything goes wrong and the machine cannot stop itself from hurtling over the cliff of meltdown contagion (like 2001‘s HAL, except the lobotomist does not arrive in time). A similar comeuppance awaits the characters here as well, and this is the place to recall that the presence of non-white star performers in the financial sector came precisely when complex mathematical modeling and computer programming replaced the handshake, the Rolodex, and the backroom deal as the DNA of financial markets. That is to say, diversity in this workplace arose out of functional needs, not from any egalitarian impulses. Open doors can also close quickly, as the novel’s narrator discovers, and as we’ve seen play out in the real-life prosecution of Galleon Group Hedge Fund chief Raj Rajaratnam and former Clinton comrade and Goldman Sachs director Rajat Gupta.

In the Light of What We Know: A Novel, by Zia Haider Rahman. 512 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $27.
In the Light of What We Know: A Novel, by Zia Haider Rahman. 512 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $27.

The novel is keen about mathematics, as both an answer and refuge from the world’s crises, including the rise of dogmas both earthly and ethereal. But the world cannot forever be held at bay, and Zia Haider Rahman is especially preoccupied with the way class hierarchies enervate British society (although Zafar widens the canvas beyond England when he says, “Aren’t all class structures terrible?”). Appropriately enough, the two protagonists—the Pakistani elite scion, and the Bangladeshi village-to-Oxford self-made man—are both visible outsiders to (white) British upper class society. As the novel reveals gradually, even after they have succeeded in school and jobs, there are still subtle ways they can be reminded, to paraphrase Morrissey’s notorious proto-National Front song, you don’t belong here.1 Correct your girlfriend’s clever comment about Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, for example—she thinks it is “nowhere” spelled backward, but Zafar points out that it is in fact an anagram—and she will wait four pages to strike back with a correction of the pronunciation of Beauchamp. Zafar quietly concludes, “One way or another, I thought, the English will get you, even if it’s with their French.”

Indeed, everyone inside this bitter social satire recognizes, lets slip, and is reminded of their social position at every occasion. A family called the Hampton-Wyverns are described as “coming from the stock that populates the foothills of the aristocracy, a buffer zone,” and we’re left to wonder if the hyphen in their surname is a desperate, tacked-on nobility. Our suspicions increase when Mrs. Hampton-Wyvern asks an innocuous question about MDF and ply furniture. Since we have already noted that she did not ask for an expansion of the acronym (there is never an unplanned moment in this beautifully meandering novel), we are primed to intuit that she knows things that are outside her “social station.” Or, more likely, she has traveled that arc that is also part of English class hierarchy—the erasing of one’s “lesser” past during the journey upward, toward a life of grouse shooting in Scotland.

Of course, not everyone can blend smoothly into the English national narrative. Race can trump class, and race and class together create prisons within prisons. We already know, from Vijay Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk, that immigrant over-achievers can be instrumentalized to reinforce the immiseration of other communities of color while safeguarding the position of white privilege. Even for those who may have imagined themselves to be distant from the derogatory “Macaulay’s children”2 and closer to the Duboisian “talented tenth,” days of reckoning do finally arrive.

Zafar, ejected from the plush life, has returned to remind the narrator that their position is as permanent outsiders. Between the two, Zafar has always felt the bite of the British class war more directly. The narrator has a father able to gift single malts from Harrods or buy entire rows of seats at the ballet. Zafar, on the other hand, is made uncomfortable by party chatter about servants in South Asia not for the usual reasons of “culture,” but because, “My family were the staff.” In these moments, we understand Zafar’s embarrassment about his parents’ visit to Oxford, the dismissal of the possibility that they would make a wedding speech in English, and the condescension about Bangladeshis as inquisitive about family ties. It is perhaps not the curiosity that upsets him so much as the fact that the “lineage” question will eject him from a vaunted position attained only through education. Although otherwise a defiant figure, Zafar seems unwilling to assault class condescension directly by flaunting his subalternized position against white manor privilege. I yearned for the defiance of the autodidact Richard Wright against the elitism of the American literary establishment. Or the simple steadfastness of Langston Hughes, in his poem “I, Too”: “Tomorrow,/I’ll be at the table/ When company comes./ Nobody’ll dare/ Say to me,/”Eat in the kitchen,”/Then.”

* * *

Frequently mistaken for Indian (a testament to the class circles he frequents), Zafar handles the “Where are you from?” question with teeth-clenched patience. His recursive dialogue with the questioner echoes a similar encounter in Zadie Smith’s first novel White Teeth—in which Samad Iqbal politely says, “I’m not actually from India, you know?”. British Bangladeshis occupy a unique position in British migration history, spanning a gamut of events from the 1978 murder of Altab Ali (which inspired the Rock Against Racism movement) all the way up to today’s “cool Britannia” appropriation of Bangladeshi enclave Brick Lane (think of the whiteout via gentrification of black Brooklyn). With the majority trapped in an economic undertow, the position of Asian working class communities has been the material for angry, fierce narratives such as Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani (“shudn’t b callin us Pakis, innit?”). If you believe the hysterical UK tabloids, Asian migrant youth are forever vacillating between joining the Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir and winning scholarships to Cambridge. Although Zafar’s class origins trouble him on a psychic level, this novel is not located within the working-class milieu of the majority of British Asians. Instead, the story navigates a space of temporary privilege, where the Pakistani and Bangladeshi characters, after the right schooling and successful jobs, can enjoy an encounter as equals.

Given the enduring open wounds between the characters’ two countries of origin, the brutal 1971 war that split Pakistan and birthed Bangladesh does surface repeatedly. The novel does this quietly, through references to “why don’t you speak Urdu” taxi drivers (a familiar figure in New York), Henry Kissinger’s wartime role in the White House3 (he also appears in the fiction of Anis Ahmed), the China ping-pong talks (“These days no one needs Pakistan as an intermediary…”), and the events of mass rape during the war. In Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay for Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, the ghosts of 1971 appear only once, as a whispered aside in a party encounter. In Rahman’s book, the war makes more frequent appearances, and its embedded trauma manifests through an act of unspeakable betrayal.

In the post-2001 novels of Teju Cole, Claire Messud, Amy Waldman, Mohsin Hamid, Jess Walter, Ian McEwan5, and others, wars internal and external, at home and abroad, are a palpable presence within lives out of sync. In the Light of What We Know traverses one of the less discussed phenomena of the war-on-terror era, the ascendancy of the NGO-industrial complex. Analyzed deftly in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, and made solid through the corruption and fakery fiasco of Three Cups of Tea, the black comedy of post-war reconstruction projects is harpooned in the book’s final act.

Bangladesh is an appropriate entry point, since the country has been a laboratory since the 1970s for every major developmentalist theory, as well as the birthplace of the globe-spanning microcredit movement. Bangladeshi NGOs are also a presence in the “pax Americana” project, a fact underscored by kidnappings of Bangladeshi NGO workers in Afghanistan6 and the recent death of a Bangladeshi official in a Kabul hotel attack7. The country is also the largest supplier of troops to UN peacekeeping missions, sometimes discussed as a possible post-American presence in countries such as Afghanistan. In the novel, Zafar also encounters a thinly disguised version of eminent Bangladeshi lawyer and politician Dr. Kamal Hossain, the former UN special rapporteur for Afghanistan8. In Kabul, the story follows a familiar post-9/11 arc: things fall apart; there is no center, only illusions of loyalty, friendship, and trust. The world is not mathematics, as Zafar learns. Authority and motivation do matter, in dreadful ways.

The British flag's xxxx
Poggendorff’s Illusion in the design of the British flag.

Let me come back to Poggendorff’s illusion, where I began. Zafar is fascinated by this concept, and so is the narrator, as he discovers that it also helps to “explain” the British flag. The design of the Union Jack was engineered so that the saltire of St. Patrick, the red diagonal cross, was mildly displaced, so each spoke appears aligned with its opposite spoke. The flag design preceded Poggendorff; even though he formalized the optical conundrum, its effect was already known.

While reading these passages about the flag, I realized I was not capable of thinking of the British flag without evoking scholar Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, which bears the influence of his mentor, the recently-departed cultural theorist Stuart Hall. The research of Hall and the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies he was affiliated with, as well as his inheritors such as Gilroy, permanently altered the way race and class were discussed in England. In the Light of What We Know is in some ways reflective of a post-Birmingham mode of speaking of, and around, these subjects. The Birmingham School approached British racism as a deadly toxin that needed to be named and attacked directly. This novel will be received in a different manner partially because of the foundational work done by the Birmingham scholars. One can even imagine Zafar providing the narration for the iconic TV special in which Stuart Hall first spoke about the racial coding of Britain’s panic over “mugging.” Hall leveraged his access to the markers of elite Britain to attack the staying power of that same privilege, always with empathy and understanding for the vast underclass. Parts of this novel also carry out an attack on British privilege, although in a much more indirect vein.

There Aint No Black In The Union Jack

One of In The Light Of What We Know‘s tender moments is a description of the friendship between Einstein and Gödel. I look wistfully at this episode and want to insert here, in the spirit of the novel’s digressive style, the figures of Satyendra Nath Bose and Srinivasa Ramanujan. Both these mathematical geniuses were underappreciated and unrecognized in their lifetime by the Euro-American academic axis. Bose’s paper on the quantum statistic of integer spin particles (bosons) was rejected until he sent it to Einstein who arranged for its publication. Bose-Einstein condensation is a form of matter that Einstein discovered based on Bose’s work. Ramanujan’s story is even more startling—he was an autodidact (more so than Bose who had university degrees, although no Ph.D.) with very little formal mathematical training, but is today considered a “natural genius.” Ramanujan’s letters to academics were ignored until he wrote to G.H. Hardy, who arranged for him to come to Cambridge to work with him. He was appointed Fellow at Trinity College, in spite of not having finished college, but this was all cut short when Ramanujan became ill and died at age 32.

I want to imagine Bose and Ramanujan quietly entering the final chapters, and Zafar might find in them kindred spirits, especially after his own steep fall from the high citadel. He could launch another sinuous anecdote, weaving in stories of the links between British India and Europe, and why Asian scientists were written out of the script of the age of scientific upheaval. Among the many things we continue to know is that we don’t live in a post-racial world, no matter what smooth narratives may be whispered to us. I do not ask a novel to address all of these issues; it is fiction after all. But the role of literary critics can be to open the conversation further, in rambunctious dialogue with this beautiful book.

Bengali mathematical physicist Satyendra Nath Bose and Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan
Mathematical physicist Satyendra Nath Bose and Mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan


On the title of this piece: At a press briefing in February 2002 where he was asked about the missing evidence of Iraqi linkages to “weapons of mass destruction,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld coined the now notorious phrases “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” Rumsfeld’s memoir was titled Known and Unknown: A Memoir (Penguin USA, 2011).

1 Morrissey, “Bengali in Platforms,” Viva Hate, 1988.

2 The “Minute Upon Indian Education” introduced by Lord Macaulay into discussions of the English Education Act of 1835 advocated the creation of a “class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

3 For more details on this, see Gary Bass’ The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (Knopf, 2013).

4 K. Anis Ahmed, Goodnight, Mr. Kissinger, Unnamed Press, 2014.

5 Teju Cole, Open City, Random House, 2012; Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children, Vintage, 2007; Amy Waldman, The Submission, Picador, 2012; Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Harvest Books, 2008; Jess Walter, The Zero, Regan/HarperCollins, 2006; Ian Macewan, Saturday, Anchor, 2006.

6 Bangladesh Rural Advancement Corporation (BRAC) is the largest NGO in the world and as of 2012, had 173 offices in Afghanistan. BRAC workers have been kidnapped on multiple occasions.

7 Wasim Zaman, head of a Malaysia-based NGO in Afghanistan, was killed by gunmen during the March attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul.

8 The novel’s description of this character as the author of Bangladesh’s constitution is a giveaway.