peteg's blog

Zia Haider Rahman: In the Light of What We Know

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I picked this up on the strength of James Wood's fawning review in the New Yorker, and, of course, that the author is Bangladeshi and was going to say something about the 1971 civil war / war for independence / revolution / genocide. Oh, and finance. Wood is right: it wears its knowledge heavily, and oftentimes my eyes glazed over, wishing that the editor had eradicated the prevarications over adjectives, reduced the number of balls concurrently in the air, tied up all loose ends. Who wants to read an author's bleatings about the difficulties of writing? That's right, other writers. It also struck me that if the book is good, you read it fast because it sucks you in, and if it is no good, then you read it fast so you can get to the next one. So you read it fast, and in the case of these almost-500 page beasts, it can lead to a loss of cabin pressure. In any case I wasn't going to pore over it as I would a Francis Spufford.

Rahman is a sucker for epistemic jokes, just like me, though few can best Rumsfeld in the public domain and it's been a while since he vacated the pitch. He is often not careful with Gödel, whose famous theorem is about truth and proof, and not just truth ala Tarski. It is intuition that gives us a handle on truth, but as we don't trust ours or other people's, we demand proof, i.e., a justification rooted in what we take to be more self-evident. The theorem is difficult and slippery, and experts like Raymond Smullyan tend to carefully separate their commentary on it from their humanistic works. Wading in where angels fear to tread, indeed.

The plot is so very A Quiet American (and probably all the other things Wood gestures at, of which I know aught), with some splintering of characters and switcheroo of the cultural identities of the villains. I found Emily to be underwritten; she is no more than her sex and class, and I found her to be entirely resistable. Her mother, Penelope, is a flake, her father a cypher; shades of Gone Girl? The portrayal of working-class Englishmen as, well, workman-like pragmatists is unoriginal and unsurprising. These parts perhaps spoke more to the compatibility of caste and class, and race as a mediator, and I for one benefited from a longer exploration from elsewhere. One could imagine Ishiguro telling the same story more epically in about fifty pages.

The whole thing is overstuffed with novelty informational detritus of the kind easily found across the entire internet these days. A couple I liked (Rahman doesn't give references for his in-text factoids). Firstly, page 71:

Time appears to slow down, said Zafar [protagonist, authorial voice, often narrator], at moments of crisis, stress, or anxiety. Time slows down, we think, during a car crash or when a person falls from a great height into a net, the latter being the setting for certain scientific experiments conducted to explore this experience of the slowing of time. The experience of time slowing down is now understood as a function of the creation of memories. According to the science, it now seems that during stress, groups of neurons known as amygdalae are engaged in activity. Associated with this is a spiked increase in the number of memories recorded by the brain in every tiny interval of time — in every instant, you might say. The sensation of how much time passed during an event is dependent on the number of memories associated with the event by the brain; the more memories, however instantaneous, the greater the length of time that is perceived to have passed. That is why we think time slowed down, when in fact we captured an album of photographs in the blink of an eye.

Secondly page 309, an excerpt from Liberty or Death by Patrick French (authorized biographer of V.S. Naipaul):

I can remember at one official function [in West Pakistan] where there was a group of women, wives of members of the elite, and I overheard one laughing to the others, "What does it matter if women in Bengal are being raped by our soldiers? At least the next generation of Bengalis will be better looking." That was the kind of attitude you found there in 1971, and it is still around today.

This book garnered reviews from all corners. Amitava Kumar at the New York Times. Louise Adler at the Smage. Sameer Rahim at the Telegraph is more sceptical. etc. etc. It is eminently quotable, and to be a little unfair, good at making people think they are thinking. I'm glad Rahman took the time to write this, but I had hopes he'd make it denser.