Day 1287: In the Light of What We Know

Cover for In the Light of What We KnowIn the Light of What We Know is a novel teeming with ideas and stories. It is filled with conversations about mathematics, politics, religion, philosophy, which makes it sound intimidating. Instead, it is thought-provoking and absorbing.

The nameless narrator is an American of Pakistani descent and privileged upbringing. When the novel opens in 2008, he has been fired from his position as an investment banker and is separated from his wife. At his door appears an old friend from his school days, a man he hasn’t heard from in years. Zafar was born in Bangladesh and raised in poverty in London. But he made his way to a degree in mathematics at Oxford, becoming first an investment banker and then a human rights lawyer. Zafar has been adrift, though, and the narrator barely recognizes him when he arrives.

Although the narrator has occasional remarks to make, most of the novel is Zafar telling about his life in anecdotes and ideas that wander and are loosely connected. Gradually, then, we understand the events that trouble and particularly anger him. All along there are hints of a massive disclosure.

Occasionally, when involved in the many circumlocutions and digressions in this novel, I felt myself on the verge of irritation, but I never actually entered into it. Instead, I found it fascinating. This novel is about exile, the feeling of not belonging, and so much more. It pins itself on the story of an unhappy love affair and on deception in the wake of 9/11. It also has something to say about the financial collapse, the war between Pakistan and Bangladesh (which I didn’t know about), Afghanistan, and many other subjects.

The title is ironic, because Zafar has a fascination with Gödel’s Theorum, which says that there are things in mathematics that are true but cannot be proven to be true. The novel is about truth, knowledge, and belief. What are they, and how do they interact?

This is a novel I read for my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project.

Related Posts

A Tale for the Time Being

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

Day 1228: The Great Railway Bazaar

Cover for The Great Railway BazaarBest of Five!
Although it was not his first published book, The Great Railway Bazaar was Paul Theroux’s first to be profitable. Written in 1975, it describes the journey he took from England through Europe and southern Asia to Japan and then back through Russia almost all the time on railroads. On the journey, he travels on some fabled railways, such as the Orient Express when it still went to Istanbul and the Trans-Siberian Express.

This isn’t a traditional travel book. For the most part, Theroux isn’t interested in describing tourist destinations. There is some description, but Theroux is mostly interested in the people he meets on the train and the glimpses of life beyond.

The book is interesting but especially for me in describing countries as they no longer are but were during my lifetime. He describes a Middle East not torn by war, as it has been since the 1980’s, an Iran ruled by the Shah, a Vietnam abandoned by Americans but still at war. He dismisses Afghanistan as a country to be avoided in future but not because of war.

His descriptions of conditions he finds are graphic, and his conversations on the train are sometimes funny. He is a keen observer of human behavior.

This book just zipped by for me, I was so interested. I was surprised to find that at that time, the Orient Express was one of the least luxurious trains he takes. It is more luxurious now, but sadly it no longer goes to Istanbul.

The Folio Society edition I have is full of beautiful photos of people traveling on trains. Unfortunately, none of them were taken by Theroux on his journey.

Related Posts

Travels in Siberia

The Road to Little Dribbling

Coming into the Country

Day 585: And the Mountains Echoed

Cover for And the Mountains EchoedMaybe because it doesn’t have as focused a plot, I didn’t like And the Mountains Echoed as much as I have Hosseini’s other books. Still, its characters involved me in their dilemmas.

I don’t think the blurb helps, because it made me think that the novel centers around Abdullah and his younger sister Pari, who are separated early in the novel. It starts with them certainly, but then it goes on to examine a multitude of relationships between other characters—some relatives of Abdullah and Pari, some connected only peripherally.

The novel explores the difficulties of connections between people—loved ones who are separated, people who are displaced, siblings who don’t understand each other, children who feel their parents disapprove of them, and so on. Although each story is interesting on its own, I felt a certain amount of frustration when some of the characters never reappeared again.

Although the ending of the novel is touching, I feel that the plot is too diffuse to be entirely satisfying. Although Jennifer Egan used a similar approach in A Visit from the Goon Squad, the difference is that I came away from that book feeling thrilled at its cleverness rather than frustrated.

Day 304: Flashman

Cover for FlashmanHaving enjoyed Fraser’s The Candlemass Road, I thought I would give his satirical Flashman series another try. I read one years ago but wasn’t prepared to be met with such an unmitigated scoundrel as the main character.

Flashman is the first of the series, and it begins when Flashman is expelled from Rugby. Apparently, the character is based on a bully who appears in Tom Brown’s School Days, a novel I have never read but which is frequently referenced in other literature.

Flashman at a young age is already a complete scoundrel, cheat, and poltroon, so the comedy in the novel centers around his ability to be successful and eventually to be lauded as a hero despite his true nature. Having set his sights on a position as officer in the Eleventh Light Dragoons, a unit he selects as unlikely to see combat, Flashman is getting along swimmingly under the ridiculous Lord Cardigan until he makes the mistake of seducing a Scottish merchant’s daughter and being forced to marry her. To the snooty Lord Cardigan this fraternization with the middle class is unacceptable, so Flashman is forced into an Indian regiment.

Flashman is not happy to be consigned to what was then regarded as second class service, but once he arrives in India he finds he enjoys bossing around the natives and discovers in himself a facility for languages. Unfortunately from his point of view, this talent gets him assigned to Afghanistan as an aide to Lord Elphinstone just before the infamous and harrowing 1842 retreat.

This satire of the army and society reminds me of Thackeray’s more subtle Vanity Fair. I think you have to be in the mood for Flashman’s antics, but the novel is based on solid historical research and is certainly entertaining. Fraser’s prose is incisive as he cuts swaths through Victorian society and skewers the ineptitude of the British army.

Day 73: A Thousand Splendid Suns

Cover for a Thousand Splendid SunsBest Book of Week 15!

A Thousand Splendid Suns is Khaled Hosseini’s second novel, about the love between two women set in the backdrop of the wars in Afghanistan. The novel begins in a time of peace with the story of the older woman, Mariam, who as a young illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man hero-worships her father and does not believe her mother’s warnings about him. When she is fifteen, she finds out the kind of man he is through a series of horrible events, beginning when she goes to the house of his legitimate family to ask him to take her to the movies. Her mother dies, and within days, her father’s legitimate family marries her off far away in Kabul to a much older man, Rasheed. Rasheed is kind to her at first, but when she cannot bring a child to term, he becomes abusive.

A neighbor of Rasheed and Mariam, Laila is 20 years younger than Mariam. She has been brought up and educated by her loving parents to be brave. She has always been in love with her childhood friend Tajik and they expect to marry, but Tajik’s family leaves the country during the war because of his father’s illness. Just as Laila’s parents are preparing to leave as well, they are killed. Rasheed, now in his 60’s, takes in Laila purportedly as an act of kindness and tricks her into marrying him.

Initially distrustful of each other, the two women soon each becomes the only person the other can trust as they lose all their rights under the government of the Taliban. Trapped in an abusive marriage, they must work together to survive.

Hosseini’s story-telling is absolutely compelling. The women’s existence is harsh, and he tells their story with compassion. The ending will leave you in tears.

Day 33: The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia

cover for The Great GameThe Great Game by Peter Hopkirk details the history of the 19th century shadow war for supremacy in Central Asia–that is, the spying, territory-grabbing, and general skullduggery accompanying the land grab of the Central Asian states and countries by Tsarist Russia and Victorian Great Britain. A great deal of the activity was centered around Afghanistan, which provides a lot of background about why the situation is so messed up today.

Investigations (exploring and snooping) were first begun in the area because of the British occupation of India. The greatest fear of the British occupiers was that the Russians would come swooping down on them through the Khyber Pass to take away what they had gained in India. So they sent small groups of men into the forbidding, wild regions to investigate the terrain, establish outposts, and try to make pacts with local war lords, khans, and other rulers.

This history is written by a Brit, so the Russians are the tacit bad guys. However, it would seem that often the Russians were more reliable partners to these states and countries than the British, who consistently let down their allies by doing nothing when the Russians invaded their territories. For their part, the Russians seemed often to be more brutal, but not always.

The book contains the enthralling stories of many young officers and civilians who took on dangerous missions into unknown, very wild territory with little or no backup from the British government, some of them simply to explore the areas but others to actively spy. Often these young men received no thanks from the British government for their efforts.

Note that a different edition of this same book is called The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. I believe these are both the same book but that On Secret Service has been updated, taking into consideration recent events. I am not exactly sure which one I read because my edition was a special one from the Folio Society (just called The Great Game), but was published around the same time as the more recent book.