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Calling Zia Haider Rahman's extraordinary debut novel "the novel of the century" is not necessarily a value judgment, although it is surely one of the best books I have read since the year 2000. But it is a book of immense scope that manages to combine so many of the themes that have dominated public debate in our century: Islam, American neo-imperialism, and the financial recession just for starters. Or, as the narrator puts it at the end of the third paragraph, "the story of the breaking of nations, war in the twenty-first century, marriage into the English aristocracy, and the mathematics of love."
He could have said a few hundred other things; never have I read a book that contained so much fascinating information about every subject under the sun, from ancient history and literature, via music, mathematics and nuclear physics, to carpentry and chess. Everything but the kitchen sink -- but If Rahman had thrown that in also, at least you would have got an informative lesson on practical plumbing, shaped into a metaphor that would somehow have illuminated one of the salient problems of our time. You can get a sense of the author's range by noting the authors of the epigraphs that head each chapter: Winston Churchill, Joseph Conrad, Albert Einstein, TS Eliot, AE Housman, John le Carré, Herman Melville, Edward Said, Tayeb Salih, WG Sebald, Saul Smilansky, and the Bible -- and that's only in the first half-dozen chapters. One of these epigraphs, from Italo Calvino, says something that may well be the grand theme of the entire novel: "Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various 'codes,' into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world." It is an audacious ambition, and though Rahman may not totally succeed, he has written one of the most multifaceted novels I have ever read.
Allowing for the countless flashbacks and digressions (and digression here is the name of the game), the novel is essentially an extended conversation between a fortyish banker and an old friend who turns up on his South Kensington doorstep one morning in 2008. The two had known each other years before at Oxford, where both were reading mathematics, and kept in sporadic touch in the intervening years in New York and London. In many ways, they are similar: both of South Asian ethnicity, both with a veneer of polished English manners, both with strong academic track records at Oxford and the Ivy Leagues, both involved for a time at least in international finance, and both bruised by unhappy relationships. But in important ways, they are also different. The unnamed narrator is from a background of privilege: his grandparents were landowners in Pakistan, his parents met at Princeton, his father moved from there to take up a professorship at Oxford, and he himself went to Eton, the premier boys' boarding school in England. Zafar, the surprise visitor, was born in a remote village in Bangladesh shortly after its war of independence from Pakistan. His father moved to London in poverty, working first as a bus conductor and then as a waiter. Zafar attended state schools and scraped his way through Oxford on a scholarship. The differences are important because, like most English novels, this one is largely about class -- but class seen in a far from parochial context, with the politics of patronage and exclusion translated to the world stage.
Unlike the narrator, Zafar did not remain in finance, but went to Harvard to study law, and then returned to Asia. The slow discovery what what he did in those lost years and how his attitudes slowly change is the main plot thread of the book. I was reminded more than once of Moshin Hamid's THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, except that Rahman's style of storytelling is a good deal less direct (downright difficult, some might say) and he is attempting something rather less obvious. Also lurking in the background, and eventually acknowledged, are THE GREAT GATSBY and THE QUIET AMERICAN. The Fitzgerald comes into play in the relationship between the two main characters, except they are more nearly equal than Carraway and Gatsby. Indeed Rahman's technique of avoiding quotation marks means that two competing "I's" come into play. Although confused at first, I soon got used to it myself, and appreciated the extraordinary flexibility this gives to the narrative, thought slipping imperceptibly into speech, and one character almost merging with the other. At least at the beginning; this starts as a novel of ideas rather than character, yet before the end, the characters have developed as distinct and three-dimensional, and interact with each other in emotional and often painful ways.
Zafar takes the Graham Greene novel with him on a couple of trips to Kabul in 2002, and the parallels to his own situation will be as obvious to him as they are to the reader. On his first evening, he goes to a bar in the UN compound, and is disgusted: "The music was loud, the soles of my feet tingling with the vibrations, a volume to muffle the clamor of sexual gambits unbuckling over the scene. It was a scene of horror. This is the freedom for which war is waged, in the venerable name of which the West sends its working-class heroes to fight and die. If the Afghanis had been asked, would they have allowed this blight on their home? Is this what [we were] fighting for?" Readers who are relieved to find the familiar tropes of political or espionage novel kicking in during the last hundred pages may be disappointed to discover that Rahman has little interest in delivering a simplistic denouement. The novel ends with a photo of Albert Einstein at Princeton walking into the distance with the mathematician Kurt Gödel, whose Incompleteness Theorem is also a talisman for the novel. The inevitable result of a lifetime's search for knowledge is the realization that there is some knowledge we will never possess. For Rahman, the destination is far less important than the journey -- but what a journey!
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The New Yorker reviewer found this book to be ‘brilliantly cerebral’ which leads to high expectations. The story immediately drew me in, covering areas somewhat familiar or interesting to me: mathematics, Oxbridge, Princeton, Afghanistan, international banking, family interaction, college friendships, Harvard, Muslim life, New York, London. I bought the book on rare impulse at full price. It did pull me along as I hoped to discover what had happened, what was it about, who were these people, but with exasperation mounting in the slow meander through digressions seeming to come off note cards, set piece asides, and sprinkled with far too many clichés, to a completely unsatisfying denoument.
Contrary to the advice to writers that they ‘show, don’t tell’ who their people are, we see little of actual examples, behaviors, choices; usually the anecdotes are referential, the author telling the characteristic we are meant to glean, but “Had Zafar tried to avoid the two men or had he in fact picked a fight?” (11th page) does indicate the thinking of a clever chess player, and gave frisson to the story, making me think, and feel the edge of decisions I did not have to make, a delicious sense. Though I hoped for more ideas like that, none came, all could be anticipated; many conversations seemed straight references from the news of the day, and did not inform further than the business pages.
While the lead storyteller declares ‘I must tell the truth’, and we know something happened of a dramatic emotional nature between two in a room in Kabul, we do not learn what it was; at page 491 he simply tells us ‘I don’t know how to speak the unspeakable’. It seems this was a crucial moment in his relation with a girl he meant to marry and we are left to guess if she confessed she betrayed him (which she will have done in another way later), betrayed her country, or another man who died, or changed heart and did not want to marry after all; she may have even done nothing, and had been innocent of the plots swirling around. This deflection of the story’s drive to a crux seems to trivialize our interest, and comes across as formulaic, as if leaving unsaid the unspeakable was merely a writerly trick learned from Heart of Darkness to make his story memorable: by suggesting more than it delivers, by hoping our imagination will take over and enhance his story; I felt played, betrayed. This was a lot of reading invested to find out nothing more than I could guess all on my own. It felt like a severe lack, a weakness in the writer’s ability to carry a story. At the moment for bravery, he flinched. Unexplained is Zafar’s fury unless it is his instinctive response to danger, and exactly why is it directed at Emily before he even sees her; has he pre-judged her guilty?
This is an interesting tale, and largely written in an interesting manner: with no quotation marks for conversation, making it more like a memoir. As it is a meditation or reminiscence of one man and tells the reviewed histoire of another man, ranges over their lives, separations and confluence, it is sometimes difficult to tell who is telling, who has experienced the story. The tone of memory speaking gives a dream-like vision, cloudy corners, not a clear tale of hard-edged realism.
He writes poignantly about the poverty of the Sylheti boy, contrasted well with the blithe acceptance of privilege in the other protagonist, though there are confusions.
He considers some incidents as intrinsic to his Bengali culture “Asking questions was a form of aggression” (p51), but in my American childhood and business life it was also considered so.
Humiliations of assimilating too much into British life separate him from his Bangladeshi family in London, but this happens to all scholarship students at posh schools, to American kids in New York schools as well.
The social ostracism in Princeton, in America of a wealthy apostate-Muslim professor and family because of their politics over Bangladesh, seems not credible. Why does he go on about how the poor Muslim family of the groom would not celebrate the wedding of their boy to a Brit, when it was made clear (41) that his biological parents were not the ones who took care of him, ie it was for other reasons they would not attend. The most interesting and involving section is the impromptu dinner party conversation in Kabul, (310-326) with the colonel, General Firdous Khan, Mohammad Ahmed Hassan, Dr Reza Mehrani, where a good deal of whisky was served, ie against Muslim precepts, . . still, though a private view of Muslim people in power in Kabul, it was just a glimpse.
Is he trying to equate Emily with England – always polite, beautiful, impeccable, liberal, but withholding, and never saying sorry? Doesn’t he know that true love means never having to say sorry, as in the Harvard version ‘Love Story’ story. It is Zafar’s problem that he does not see himself as equal to Emily, deserving of the same respect, consideration, adherence to the same rules of behavior. He sells himself short.
Perhaps because of the men’s detachment from their own emotional lives, their remove from their roots, their philosophic response to life, one does not learn to care so much for them as for Hari Kumar in The Raj Quartet. The benefits they have been given outweigh the travails, though these are much sounded. Given are various reasons for their separation from Muslim culture, so not much insight is given to Muslim views, to allow me to see the world from their eyes as I felt transformed after reading Naguib Mahfouz’ Nidaq Alley, Palace Walk.
It seemed by the last page that the author wrote the more intense part, the end, first, then by outline filled in the leading ropes or threads to justify the pre-ordained non-conclusion. He could have used a good editor to remove the frequent clichéd phrases and the quotes of known personalities always ‘famously’ saying something. So many! And not the ones leading each chapter, which a young person would write in their notebook.
Others might forgive the occasional pontificating on abstruse subjects, and pompous language, and sometimes the words seemed inflated, using big words where small ones would do. Some were grating: his use of evidence as a verb “these words did not evidence something deeper” (101) “The composition of his speech evidenced a South Asian sensibility… “(47). All clichés should be excised from any novel hoping to offer a depth of view. Repetitious phrases can be detected from one chapter to the next, and both showed a lack of his or an editor’s attention, sophistication or faith that a reader would notice.
Rahman rails at the perception that “knowledge was just a social act”, that college kids were only inflating what they knew “to fill the voids”, “the root of true, rightly guided power, the essence of authority, was not learning but the veneer of knowledge”. Sounds like a caricature of college at the time of Stephen Hawkings’ years (1960s) when it was infra dig to admit the need to swot: brilliance meant understanding without work. The young I have observed over the past ten years at Princeton, Harvard, Cambridge, Yale, etc take their time at college seriously, and enjoy the struggle of learning to think and see in new ways. Throwing darts at the value of elite education is popular nowadays, and it may be attractive to question what one learns at such institutions. More than knowledge of any facts, one gains a depth of insight, the ability to hold contradictory thoughts in your head, the ability to think closely on the implications of differing lines of action; one learns to gather large amounts of information and winnow out the useful parts, to help one learn to think quickly, to see how developments over time impact on one another. Did anyone notice that his highly educated Zafar, the brilliant mathematician, chess-player, who can make financial deals, salt away enough to live without working, was unable to decipher the plans of similarly British-educated Pakistani military powers, or even grasp what were their intentions or desires? He might have learned the strict rules of banking, but not how to parse power in Kabul. Zafar’s downfall also seems to have included the inability to understand inscrutable British girls, but the required retreat in Islamabad (the colonel playing the rogue gendarme ias in Casablanca) seems to confirm the misdirection, not that his life was at stake. Zafar is being played, and he doesn’t catch it. Is Rahman showing how elite colleges are valueless in preparing one for life at crucial moments? I don’t think Rahman meant to take his thoughtful hero down. The New Yorker reviewer thought he is questioning the value of knowledge. Maybe Zafar was not as smart as he is purported to be.
Ingredients for a great novel might include that the characters believe in themselves, and whether they are wrong or not, there has to be a sense of integrity in their actions, honesty to themselves, if not to us. Our grasp of contradictory philosophies is a good deal more robust than Rahman gives us, his readers, credit for. It felt in the end that the author so doubted our interest that he shadowboxed it all out. He seems to have a lot going for him, subtlety, depth, complexity, but Please, next time with heart and soul, don’t pull the punches.
Maybe if you read it more slowly than I, maybe if you simply savor the unfolding, maybe if the subjects are more of a surprise to you than they were to me, you would enjoy this book more thoroughly. Amidst other occupations it took me about three ½ weeks to finish. Maybe all he is interested in is selling the movie rights.