James Wood is everyone’s idea of a thoughtful reviewer. When his praise is high, it convinces us to not merely to read the book but also to measure ourselves in terms of how much we like it.
In the light of What We Know is that rare novel that earns the adjective of being sprawling. The first quirk that Zia Haider Rahman introduces is that both the protagonist, Zafar, and the narrator speak to us in first person. Somehow it works. The seamless transition from narrator’s voice to Zafar’s is often used as a pivot from the meta to digressions on everything else. The other unmissable feature of the 500 page novel is that you’ll end up highlighting at least one quote in every one of those pages. Some of them for true originality of thought, some for the lyrical prose that captures them and others for a combination.
Zafar is an infuriating man; often reminding us of our worst moments. He’s thoughtful, insecure, vengeful and generous. Except, his insecurity is the prism through which he views the world. He has a way of speaking that’s alluring on good days and just annoying on most others. Whether this reflects Zia Haider Rahman’s own writing form or is intentional is a question that’s impossible to answer. Zafar’s vile belittling of well meaning and misinformed people is irresistible in its pull. Personal angst is used to justify the post-colonial revulsion and vice-versa.
Zia Haider Rahman’s plot is thin; non-existent even. A long lost friend shows up at a banker’s house and tells him his life story. Which isn’t much. The entire novel is an excuse to tell us what a strange man Zafar is. There is, as several feminists have complained, unforgivable misogyny. But that’s who Zafar and his friend are as people; post colonial men of talent and privilege respectively. Only they find out, it possibly takes a few more generations to normalise regardless of how much wealth or intelligence one possesses. Until then, their lives are empty and nothing happens. Almost by definition. So in a convoluted way, the book manages to stay honest in its exploration of the human condition.
The theme of novel is Kurt Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. The use of 20th Century’s greatest result as a metaphor is tricky. It hardly lends itself. Rahman, ever the thoughtful student of Mathematics, also hints at that very problem and discusses the limits of metaphors in a different context. One isn’t sure whether one should be exasperated or charmed. Every thought that the reader may have has a nod somewhere from the author within the 500 pages. Which makes us realise Rahman is, above all, a reader. A man who consumes literature and possibly created it as an elaborate game; a joke. The kind of self aware and self deprecating joke that is funny to us when it’s shared only with us. And this book manages to make us believe it’s just that – an inside joke only the reader and Rahman get.