Zia Haider Rahman: In defence of completeness

A talented Bangladeshi mathematician’s incredible sad story includes, as in Sebald and Eco, many worlds in Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know.

ZiaAlbert Einstein, the narrator informs us in the beginning of this novel, used to look forward to his long walks at Princeton with Kurt Godel, the great mathematician, for stimulating conversation. Similarly, the narrator himself used to go for walks with his brilliant mentor, Zafar, through the streets of Oxford. The mathematics of Godel plays an important role in their conversations, as do assorted subjects such as the elegance of Poggendorff’s Illusion; the inferiority of Mercator’s Projection to Peter’s Projection in map-making; Bach’s music and Brahms’s opinion of it, and the reason why flags are flown at half-mast when somebody dies. This small apercu will give you some idea of the soaring scope—and intellectual range—of In the Light of What We Know.

It is a novel of rare beauty and power that has electrified the literary establishment. It begins in London, about the time of the financial crisis of 2008. The narrator, a young Pakistani mat­hematician-tur­ned-investment banker, opens the door one morning to see a bedraggled, half-­familiar figure outside. It takes a mom­ent for him to recognise Zafar, the Bangladeshi math prodigy and his one-time mentor who had disappeared mysteriously years ago. The narrator takes Zafar in and instals him in his guest room, and Zafar’s strange, disturbing story emerges, thro­ugh conversations and diary pages, its eve­nts cross-cutting between Oxford, Lon­­don, New York, Kabul and Islamabad.

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