I’m not sure why, but I expected this book to be similar to The Kite Runner – and it would be, I suppose, if The Kite Runner were written by Joseph Conrad.
This novel is about two friends: grown men of Central Asian heritage, one of whom is more privileged than the other. The more privileged one is the narrator; his friend is an enigma whose complicated past is revealed bit by bit over the course of the novel. This, though, is where the similarities to Khaled Hosseini’s novel end. In the Light of What We Know is about marriage and mathematics, finance and failure, history and imperialism and religion and violence and the literary canon. I very much enjoyed it, but this is not the kind of novel that pulls a reader along effortlessly. This is a novel with which one has to wrestle.
The protagonist is an unnamed investment banker who, in 2008, is suspended from his firm for his role in persuading the firm to invest heavily in CDO’s (watch The Big Short before you read this novel to save yourself some Googling). At the beginning we don’t know the details about why the narrator is at home mid-week surrounded by an aura of doom – those details are revealed bit by bit over the course of the novel. Because he is suspended, though, he is at home when a filthy, grubby visitor – who ends up being his old friend Zafar – knocks at his door and references Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which I promise I will not try to explain to you. Try as you might, you will end up Googling something by the time this novel is over.
The narrator and Zafar met at Oxford, where they were both math majors (or, more correctly and much more adorably, they both “read maths”). Later they lived in New York for some time and got in the habit of taking long walks together and talking about math, life, and whatever else one talks about when one is a character in a novel that should be by Joseph Conrad, but isn’t. The narrator comes from a very wealthy Pakistani family; Zafar was conceived during the war in which Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan in 1971, when Pakistani soldiers systematically raped as many Bangladeshi women as they could find. The sullen couple who raised Zafar in a tiny apartment in London are not his biological parents.
But let’s pull away from the plot for a moment. No review will ever capture everything that is in this book, and it would be stupid to try. So instead I’ll dance around the plot a little and tell you about some of the structural elements that scaffold the plot, like the comically-ubiquitous epigraphs and the lengthy footnotes, and maybe I’ll quote a few passages and tell you why they moved me – and this novel did move me, quite a lot.
Every chapter in this novel has at least two epigraphs, and the novel as a whole is introduced by a passage about history from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, a novel I have long felt guilty for never having read. Chapter One’s epigraphs are by Edward Said, Herman Melville, and (you guessed it) Joseph Conrad: in other words, they come from two of the 20th century’s most distinguished thinkers on postcolonialism and empire, alongside the author of one of the most well-known novels about pursuing a fated quarry to the ends of the earth. Interesting stuff.
Chapter 2 gives us two passages about the British Raj. Chapter 3 offers two news articles on the Bangladeshi secession; 4 begins with Ecclesiastes, A.E. Housman, and a philosopher named Saul Smilanksy, noted for his work on free will. T.S. Eliot and John LaCarré make appearances, as does Einstein, and then something intriguing starts to happen. In the novel, the narrator welcomes a filthy, discombobulated Zafar into his home after several years of no contact from his friend, and Zafar begins a long story to explain the complicated, painful turn his life has taken. In addition to telling his story, Zafar gives the protagonist a pile of his journals so his friend can read some of the parts of the story Zafar doesn’t want to retell. In these journals, the protagonist finds an entry in which Zafar muses that any statement can be legitimized by attributing it to Winston Churchill. It’s true, of course: Churchill is the post-WW2 Western’s world’s red rubber stamp of approval. I basked for a moment in this truth I had not previously considered – but then I said WAIT a minute and flipped back a few pages to reread an epigraph I had only skimmed – an epigraph attributed to Churchill. By the time I finished it I was sure the words were not Churchill’s. I went nuts. I flipped ahead in the book, finding and reading every epigraph. I Googled “Saul Smilansky”; is he even real? (He is.) The end result of all this page-flipping is the same idea that always seemed to hide at the heart of every book I read for my undergraduate English major: subjectivity. There’s no center and no margin. The truths we’re taught are inviolate are only stories. Zafar at the protagonist’s kitchen table is no different from Marlow on the deck of the Nellie. This novel is about novels (I was taught in college that all novels are about novels, all poetry about poetry) – it’s about the received canon and about the power of language to tell new stories. “You know what a metaphor is?” The protagonist remembers his father once saying. “A story sent through the super distillation of imagination. You know what a story is? An extended metaphor. We live in them. We live in this swirling mass of stories written by scribes hidden in some forgotten room up there in the towers. The day someone thought of calling pigeons flying rats was the day the fate of pigeons was sealed. Does anyone who hears them called flying rats stop to ask if pigeons actually carry disease? Or Plato’s cave. If a fellow knows nothing else about the man, he knows something about a cave and shadows” (271). In other words, we may think we use language to describe the world as it is, but really we use language to exclude thousands if not millions of alternate realities that are not consistent with what we see through our own pair of eyes. Look at the cover of the book – that airplane window. That’s us, proud of ourselves for traveling, thinking we’re seeing the world.
Which brings us to the title of the novel. The phrase In the Light of What We Know draws attention to this subjectivity. It’s like a disclaimer stamped on every sentence of this novel: I can only speak of what I have seen and heard and experienced. That’s how I interpreted the phrase at the beginning of the novel, and I still think it is the title’s primary meaning. But the title takes on a different meaning if it is read without irony. It becomes a statement of arrogance, of a diseased faith in the centrality of one’s own story. In literature, light has long been associated with truth. This association, this metaphor, is at the heart of the primary meaning of the title. But it can also be read as the bedazzled statement of someone who truly believes his knowledge is uncorrupted by his own life experience, educated, and heritage. When we occupy a place in the world in which our own experiences and perspectives are legitimized by the larger culture, it is easy to forget the initial cautious connotation of the title and assume the self-deluded perspective of a Kipling or a Somerset Maugham, both of whom are referenced in this novel. And let’s be honest: you feel it sometimes, don’t you. You feel right. You feel you have an access to truth others don’t have. You feel as if you were born in a 19th-century British empire upon which the sun never sets – even if you’re not the slightest bit British, not imperious even over your dog.
And to think I started out wanting to tell you about the part where Zafar is almost killed in a train accident. Just read the book, OK?