Truth in fiction

Lead review

Truth in fiction

Life is contemplated upon variously and interestingly by two men who begin to rediscover themselves, writes Shreekumar Varma, about Zia Haider Rahman’s In The Light Of What We Know...

During a recent panel discussion in Singapore, we explored truth in fiction and lies in nonfiction. It was called ‘Twisting The Truth’. It’s probably a coincidence that I was reading the book under review then, because Rahman’s approach to fiction is gloriously connected to the title of his debut novel and the ways of looking at the truth.

It’s a mighty ramble of a book. But not a rootless ramble. It’s like a plethora of signals from a variety of subjects connecting two antennae, the narrator and his protagonist. A book of many ideas and sources. The story of the two principal characters and their individual and mutual lives is a thread that holds those ideas together, defining and being defined by them. But the “story” itself, of the narrator and Zafar and Emily, their professional and personal commitments could have been told in a quarter of the present volume. And that would have been another book, a lesser book, definitely not a “different” book.

The unnamed narrator opens his door one morning in 2008 to find his old friend Zafar at his Kensington doorstep. The man has changed physically, and otherwise. In fact, both have had reversals, the narrator’s marriage is strained, his job is on the line, his self-assurance is slipping; Zafar is in even worse shape.

The book chronicles their conversations, his interrogations of Zafar, probing his life and reasons, many of them recordings; it takes us into a many-faceted world few books have dared to enter. In the course of this journey, we travel through many lands: England, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Italy, the US; through many ideas: from the philosophy of mathematics to mapmaking, chess to the craft of writing, political and diplomatic expediencies to the inner world of finance, even trivia such as the origin of flags flown at half-mast.

Every thought brings forth an idea. There are quotations, epigraphs, and many striking original interpretations. We are swamped, but most of the time we don’t realise we’re feeling that way. Today’s reader, used to or constricted by the norm of contraction, might either reject this work or respect and welcome it — this engorged literary kaleidoscope — with open arms.
There’s a settled weight in the narrative that takes us beyond impatience, and into archetypal experiences. The writer is patient, leading us into labyrinths of his arguments or staying with us as he explains what he’s just said, even providing long footnotes to elucidate the background to Zafar’s narrative or to prove that he’s probably mistaken; much like an understanding teacher, rather than have his say and run away. In many instances, voices seem to merge in the absence of defining quotation marks.

But even when he’s on the cusp of a dramatic denouement, a revelation of betrayal, even during a fictional crossroad when there should naturally have been fireworks between the two principal characters, we get an elaborate philosophical treatise rather than a confrontation one, a spiel on dates and processes that could easily have frustrated us had the writer not, earlier in the book, set us on its course.
It is unique that a first-person narrative can throw up so many facets and perspectives. We’re unsure whether to approach it as fiction or something beyond: a fresh, encompassing genre. It seems surprising that we’re given so much within the covers of a single book, that so much could be expressed. “My drama, like everyone else’s, goes on upstairs, in the head,” Zafar explains finally. “And I don’t think you can write the drama of the mind.” It is, no doubt, the encompassing worlds that enable the “drama” to be framed and understood.

Some images linger: A train tumbling into tempestuous waters, a train from which Zafar has just jumped down because he, with his mathematician’s mind, couldn’t see the bridge bearing its weight. Zafar kneeling on the brightly lit streets of Dubai, seeking Godness. His apprenticeship with “chippies” Bill and Dave, which not only gives him access to the world of fine carpentry but also to fine distinctions between cultural worlds. A darkly atmospheric room in Pakistan with a chessboard and several top army players in clever conversation. Zafar’s cool, incomplete encounter with Emily in the Kabul bar, a “hub”crowded with UN staffers.

Even though Rahman painstakingly plays each knowledge session to its conclusion, he acts like a film editor when dealing with present human drama, cutting to other times and other moods, placing pieces on the table, leaving the effect to the reader.
Early in the book, speaking of Emily, Zafar cites the Bible. Though Peter denied Christ thrice despite saying he wouldn’t, he is the “rock” upon which Christ ordered his church to be founded. “I am reminded of the injunction that you should treat a man as you believe him capable and he will become that person — a ridiculous homily.” This is probably one of the rocks on which the book is founded, along with Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, “a theorem so enchanting and disturbing, like love.”

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