This is Zia Haider Rahman’s first novel, and we hope he writes more. That said, it is not for the superficial reader. If you are looking for a roaring good read of plot twists and shocking revelations, look elsewhere.
Two men, one Bengali, the other Western Pakistani become friends, sharing a heritage of sorts and a brilliance of mind. Together they put before the reader a whole series of today’s most pressing issues, from the Middle East, to American imperialism, British colonialism, the banking crisis, but mostly how the human spirit negotiates through the complexities of what is now a global experience.
Zafar, the Bengali, and brilliant mathematician pops up on his friend’s doorstep after a long absence and the men begin a conversation. Zafar relates a series of events that take us to Islamabad, Kabul, New York, London, and a host of other places, as the story weaves back and forth, starting and stopping, interlacing history, romance, Godel’s Improbability Theorem, and the human condition writ large.
Rahman plunges courageously into the psyche, questioning, always questioning motives and choices, and all our preconceived notions of good and bad, right and wrong. There are no easy answers here, no solutions, only more questions. Each man seeks the meaning of his own life and seeks to understand the motives and choices of others.
For the Western reader who has no experience with the East, this is indeed an eye-opener. Seen from the point of view of the recipient of colonial imperialism, both British and American, we begin to see the ways that such a system has demeaned and lessened the humanity of not only the objects of such subjugation, but also ourselves. Zafar becomes the poor Bengali kid who just happens to be a math genius. Although raised primarily in Britain, he remains the “other” in every social setting–something of the prize poodle trotted out to be praised.
Equally of value is the insider look at how the banking system was brought to its knees by greedy and amoral traders who were paid to make the money and not question how or why. Ultimately our narrator, an investment banker, whose career is coming to an end at age 40, along with his marriage, becomes his company’s scapegoat in the financial crisis that is spreading. He sits in the kitchen, reading Zafar’s journals and then listening to his rambling story of Emily and Crane, and the intrigue that is Afghanistan.
One of the more intriguing moments is when Zafar relates that he is aware that certain things regarding the narrator and his ex-fiance. The narrator tries to intervene and explain, yet Zafar will have none of that:
You can’t say sorry and offer an explanation, said Zafar. What’s an explanation supposed to do, other than make you feel better? If an explanation is a justification, then why say sorry? And if it isn’t a justification, then it’s a confession in search of absolution.
Nothing truer can be said.
What happens here and throughout the book is that one is forced (one hopes as least) to stop, examine and re-examine one’s own thinking and beliefs. Rahman rather brilliantly probes our preconceptions about relationships and life in general and calls us to question anew what we have assumed and taken for granted. This happens again and again, taking us back and forth from personal relationships to historical “truths”.
We are forced again to examine the Bangladeshi/West Pakistani war and the complicity of the US in the atrocities committed against Bengali people. We look anew at the class system in Britain. We are presented with the true nature of private contractors in Afghanistan, of the interplay of so many players each with personal and national interests.
As I said, if you are looking for an uncomplicated simple story, look elsewhere, but if you indeed are excited by ideas, and beautiful writing, do pick this one up and read.