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.

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Day 856: A God in Every Stone

Cover for A God in Every StoneA God in Every Stone is a novel that seems to be trying to convey some profound truths. The trouble is, I couldn’t figure out what they were.

It begins in pre-World War I Turkey, where young Vivian Rose Spencer is on an archaeological dig. She is entranced by the thought of the history of artifacts, particularly by a story told her by Tahsin Bey, a friend of her father. He tells her of a circlet worn by the 5th century explorer Scylax, which he believes may be found in Peshawar, where the Persian King Darius sent him to explore the Indus. Viv’s visit is cut short by the start of the war, but by then she has promised herself to Tahsin Bey, who says he will fetch her in London after the war.

Viv begins the war nursing, but after a while she is unable to take the stress. Her mother agrees to allow her to journey to Peshawar as an archaeologist, but first she is drawn by patriotism and naiveté into a betrayal.

Qayyam Gul is a proud Pushtun soldier whose regiment is practically wiped out at Auber’s Ridge. He loses an eye, but it is his experience of being an Indian soldier in England that makes him begin rethinking his loyalties.

In Peshawar, Viv befriends a young Pathan boy, Najeeb, who becomes fascinated by the objects in the museum. She begins giving him lessons in the classics, but when his mother finds out, she makes him stop. Najeeb is Qayyam’s brother, and Qayyam accompanies Najeeb to Viv’s house to return her books. Not much later, Viv is forced to return to London.

Fourteen years later, Viv is enticed back to Peshawar by Najeeb’s letters. He is now employed by the Peshawar Museum and wants her to excavate the site that she hoped to explore years before. Qayyam has in the meantime become involved in the Congress, which wants to separate India from England. Viv arrives, but after violence has already begun.

Although I was interested in the characters and wanted to know what happened to them, I felt that Shamsie presents us with threads of different stories, all unexplored. We don’t learn very much about Qayyam’s experience at Auber’s Ridge or Viv’s nursing experiences, for example, or what’s going on in the Congress. We never find out what happened to Scylax’s circlet. It is almost a McGuffin. The best parts of the novel are her depictions of Peshawar. But even there, the readers’ experience seems fragmentary. In a dramatic portion of the end of the novel, a girl is introduced as an apparent partner for Najeeb, only to be killed within a few pages. The author’s intentions seem confused, as if she started with too many stories to tell and couldn’t decide between them.

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Day 691: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

Cover for The Shadow of the Crescent MoonI have to admit right away that I found this novel about modern-day Pakistan confusing. I think it’s because I don’t understand enough about the history of the area.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is set in Mir Ali in northern Pakistan. To help figure out what was going on, I did a little googling and found out that this area is known for jihadist insurgency. but it wasn’t clear to me that this is what the novel is about, exactly, although it certainly is about the complexities of life in an unstable area.

Set in one morning during Eid, the novel is about three brothers. The oldest, Aman Erum, has just returned from studying and starting a business in America. All his life, he has only wanted to leave Mir Ali and become a successful businessman. His tie to Mir Ali has been Samarra, the woman he has loved since they were children. But his price for leaving Mir Ali was a betrayal, even of her.

The youngest brother Hayat was the one who listened to his father’s stories of the past, when the region was free. Here is one source of my confusion, because Hayat has joined the insurgents working for the region’s freedom from Pakistan. It was not until late in the novel that I discovered they wanted to belong to Afghanistan instead, and it was not clear to me whether these insurgents were also jihadists. I think not, because the family is Shia and the jihadists seem to be Sunni. The actual term is never used in the novel. In any case, Hayat is plotting with Samarra an event to take place that day. In fact, Samarra, whose father disappeared years ago on a mission for the separatists, is in charge of their group.

Sikander, the middle brother, is a doctor whose son has recently been killed when a different group, apparently the Taliban, blew up the hospital where the boy was waiting for his father. Sikander’s wife Mina has taken to attending funerals of other children and behaving in a way that is slightly deranged. Sikander is taking Mina home from yet another funeral when he is summoned for a medical emergency so he brings her along. On their way, they are stopped at a Taliban roadblock. Sikander cravenly pretends that Mina is the doctor and he is simply her driver.

link to NetgalleyI don’t think we get to know any of these people well enough to become very involved in this novel. Further, more complete background on the history of the area, as opposed to allusions that assume we already know about it, would have helped me understand better what the issues are and who is who. It is clear that the residents of the area feel that Pakistan’s leaders have pilfered it and left them with little hope. The novel held a certain amount of drama but could have been more effective.

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Day 633: Kim

Cover for KimBest Book of the Week!
Up until now, the only book I read by Rudyard Kipling was Puck of Pook’s Hill, which is definitely a children’s book. I always assumed that Kim was a children’s book, too, or at most a boy’s adventure story, but I don’t think I would describe it that way.

Kim is the son of an Irish soldier in India, but both of his parents died impoverished when he was young. He has been brought up by a Eurasian woman who leaves him to himself most of the time, only insisting that he wear European clothing. But he keeps some native clothing hidden away, and when he is wearing it, he cannot be discerned from any other street urchin. He knows everyone in Lahore, and they call him Friend of All the World.

One day he is playing outside the Lahore museum when a holy old lama comes to look at the wonders inside. Kim sees that he is a truly guileless man with no one to help him in a foreign country. The lama explains that he is searching for a holy river that will wash clean all his sins. Kim decides that he will go with the lama as his chela, his disciple who begs for him and takes care of him. Before leaving Lahore, though, Kim goes to see Mahbub Ali, an Afghani horse dealer for whom he has run some errands. Mahbub gives him a dispatch to take to a British Colonel Creighton.

The description of the journey of Kim and the lama is very colorful and interesting, reflecting Kim’s joy in the bustle of the road and a love of the country on the part of the author. But Kim’s father told him long ago that he would be saved by a red bull on a green field, so when he sees a regimental flag flying the device, he goes nearer to look and is suspected of being a thief.

He has always carried his papers in an amulet, and when he is captured, his identity as Kimball O’Hara is established. The priests in the regiment, of which Kim’s father was a member, plan to send him away to a Masonic orphanage. Kept a watch on and forbidden to see his lama, Kim writes to Mahbub for help. Mahbub makes sure that Colonel Creighton understands how valuable a boy like Kim would be as part of the Great Game, of spies and explorers in the far regions of the area.

So, Kim’s fate is taken out of his own hands and he is sent to school to learn to take his part in the Raj. But the lama pays for his schooling and makes sure he goes to a better school than originally intended.

This is really a great novel. I came to it prepared for perhaps some outmoded racism or hints of British superiority but found a novel that reflects a deep love of India and of all its peoples. Of course, there is an implicit assumption that the Raj is a good thing, but the British characters in the novel are as varied as any, and there are comments about mismanagement and misplaced airs of superiority on the part of the British. Kim is rich in colors and smells, in the flavors of language and the stories of the orient, and in this complex tale of a boy with loyalties both to the soldiers who raised him and to his beloved lama.