Zia Haider Rahman & Eric Chinski

Authors & Editors in Conversation

Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know tells the story of a friendship—and the betrayal of that friendship—set against the backdrop of economic crisis and the war in Afghanistan. Editor Eric Chinski talked with Rahman recently about his debut novel, the power fiction has to explore human psychology, Rahman’s use of epigraphs, and the crucial role that Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem plays in the narrative.

Eric Chinski: You have a background in advanced mathematics, finance, and law. What compelled you to turn to writing fiction?

Zia Haider Rahman: I’ve always been in love with literature. I was always reading novels. And I was always keeping notebooks and writing pieces in them, short and long. But until I came into my thirties, I had a belief that writing books was something people of another social class did, a higher social class, some would describe them. I wouldn’t have expressed the belief in those terms—it would have been hard to accept—but I think it was there. In the Britain I grew up in, the writers I read about seemed to come overwhelmingly from the professional classes and not from the projects. Incidentally, I’ve never felt that there was an objective basis to the cultural boundaries we see between the arts and humanities and the sciences. This kind of Balkanization is really a twentieth-century phenomenon, most pronounced in the Anglo-Saxon world. Coetzee, for example, studied mathematics and also literature. So, to answer your question, the demarcations between the so-called two cultures didn’t stop me so much as the perceived borders of class. I was always drawn to writing but I had a hang-up.

So what changed?

I did. Sometime in my thirties, I noticed the hang-up had gone. I’m not sure why and nothing I’d say could rise above speculation. Deaths of people I cared about might have had something to do with it. A pressing sense of finitude can undermine our inhibitions and vanities.

One of the great powers of fiction is its capacity to explore human psychology—the complex nature of motivation, desire, ambition, and even self-deception. There are many references in your novel to new breakthroughs in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, including the work of Daniel Kahneman on the limits of human rationality. Has the view of the mind that is emerging from this scientific research shaped your understanding of what fiction can reveal about human nature?

In The Light of What We KnowThe references arise out of the preoccupations of the characters, principally those of Zafar, one of the main characters, who has a deep background in mathematics and science, but, yes, I’m interested in how the cognitive sciences can inform both fiction and the craft of fiction. You asked me what changed—why, in my thirties, I ceased to feel that writing fiction was the province of loftier people—and I said I didn’t know. I think one of the things that cognitive science has been so good at doing is showing that our motivations for actions and thought are very much hidden from us. Personal causation is fundamental to fiction, even when it’s largely implied. Whether and how and what kinds of fiction will reflect this—that we’re strangers to ourselves, more so than we ever imagined—is hard to envisage, and perhaps it’s unnecessary to do so. But fiction that claims to explore consciousness and unconsciousness must at some point digest some of the new findings in order to retain a right to the claim that it’s saying something about the truth of what we are and how we live.

One other thing to say relates to point of view. I don’t want to misrepresent Sebald—I admire his work enormously—but unless I’m mistaken, Sebald was critical of all points of view other than the first. I don’t think first person is the only way to tell a story, but if the story involves an exploration of the nature of self, then my reading of the findings of cognitive science suggests certain problems with third person as a point of view. The self, such as it is, might only exist in the course of perception. Without a first person, who exactly is doing the perceiving? This is not a manifesto against the third person by any means; on one level, all I’m saying is something rather banal, namely that what a novel can achieve is circumscribed by the point of view adopted and that, in my opinion, first person accommodates certain things that I haven’t seen in third. For example, there can be a lack of compassion in third-person depiction of self-deception; the authorial knowingness can feel presumptuous. If anything, cognitive science calls into question that knowingness.

But fiction that looks to the frontiers of understanding has to take care not to lose sight of how people actually read now if it wants to speak to people, move them, and do what fiction can do. It must keep disbelief suspended. Come to think of it, science has to take similar care, too. When Galileo said whatever he’s said to have said, the Catholic Church might have reeled in horror but I bet there were others who couldn’t stop laughing at him.

Any reader picking up In the Light of What We Know will immediately notice the prominent use of epigraphs. Could you explain your decision to use so many quotes from other writers? And, on a related note, I detect some very clear literary influences in your writing—Sebald and Naipaul, among others—and I wonder if you could discuss how you see your novel in conversation with other books.

The epigraphs, as it becomes apparent, are an integral part of the story. In this respect, their status differs from the status of epigraphs in books generally, if not in every instance. I have to be clear about the distinction I’m drawing. Epigraphs in novels typically leave a trace of authorial intrusion but here it becomes clear, I hope, that each epigraph reflects an active choice on the part of the narrator, even if they are taken from extensive notebooks supplied by another character. The fact that Zafar wrote them down in his notebooks also reflects an active choice. But all these choices are choices within limits. The idea of constrained choice is a big theme in the novel; I’m very interested in the limits of free will, the ways that choices open up to us at the same time as they’re circumscribed by fortune or fate, or history, class, and culture. But my answer is a little misleading. The problem is that many reasons for going a certain way in the writing, for making a certain choice, come at once–you see all the effects in one go—and because of that it’s not always easy to identify any one motive as primary or even operative. Now, at the risk of undoing everything I’ve said, perhaps the main reason for the use of epigraphs lies within the story itself: the narrator is using the epigraphs to organize his own thinking and also to draw out that of another character, the author of the notebooks, someone who evidently has tried to find answers to his own questions in the work of others, even trying to find his own self using the thoughts of others as signposts. Forgive me if I’m being a little coy but I’d hate to spoil a prospective reader’s experience by going too far into the novel.

It’s a bit of a cliché to say that first novels are thinly veiled memoirs, but I can’t help but see some biographical connections between Zafar, one of the central characters in the novel, and you. Would you say that the novel is autobiographical?

Roth didn’t write about an aging South African male writer living in Sydney; and Coetzee didn’t write about Jews in New Jersey in the 1950s. Most of the novelists I’ve loved reading—these and others, Conrad and Sebald, for instance—have written books, often more than one, with strong biographical connections between the author and some or other character. I rather suspect novelists are less interested than readers—some readers—in whether the novel at hand has autobiographical elements. There’s a very mundane level, however, on which the answer to your question is yes. I’ve worked in investment banking and in human rights and I’m familiar—to varying degrees—with the parts of the world where the novel takes us. If I said to you that it happened like this, that I had an idea for a story in which, among many other things, one thread of the story touches on military contractors in Kabul and that then it occurred to me that I could draw on my visits to that city not long after the US invasion, then, quite rightly, you’d say I was being disingenuous. The fact is that one leg of imagination is experience and experience is not a prosthetic to imagination. Of course I’m drawing on experiences, including the experiences of observing others going about their business. Perhaps those connections were responsible for the intimacy I felt in the course of writing the novel. Some time after I finished writing I caught myself crying: I was going to miss the narrator deeply. And not because he didn’t exist any more—no fictional character ever did. What I felt was the feeling of missing someone you know you won’t see for a while. In his case, quite possibly never again.

The novel is set against the backdrop of the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the war in Afghanistan, the kinds of contemporary events that are typically treated more by journalists than novelists. In your mind, what can the novel as a form bring to our understanding of the present?

The characters of this novel cross borders of geography, career, nationality and—most obviously in the character of Zafar—class. The final border the novel crosses is the one between the imaginary and the real worlds. If the crossing is mandated by the story, why should a novel hesitate to take the step? There’s an important point here. I’ve mentioned “the real world,” but this raises all kinds of questions. Each of us has only an imagined world. Whatever comes in through the senses is refracted by our personalities, our dispositions, our inheritances, our specific everything, and is translated into something represented in our heads. We recognize our friends when we see them or hear them; we don’t get to know them from scratch every time. Our interactions with the world are with the imagined world inside us which might be some kind of representation of the so-called real world but cannot actually be the real world. That’s why people we believe we know are capable of surprising or disappointing us. Our understanding of the present—which is what your question is about—is not simply the reception of what the news media tells us. It’s not so much an understanding that we develop—even if our egos tell us that that’s what we’re getting—but an experience that we’re having, as what we learn interacts with all that we already are. I think the form of the novel, with its enormous flexibility and scope, remains the pre-eminent venue for exploring that experience, and thereby shedding light on our imagined worlds—our most present and governing ones.

You have referred a few times to how we are constrained by the circumstances that we inherit. Can you say more about how the novel grapples with notions of career, class, ethnicity, language, geography, and history as shaping our sense of self?

At the very outset of the novel, a certain political perspective of my own had a bearing on the novel. Human beings seem to be very bad at handling more than one cause. We don’t actually need psychologists to suggest this because it’s quite apparent in everything we read in the news media. Whenever there’s a tragedy the first question we seem to ask is, “What was the cause of this?” Almost all the answers given are heavily biased towards mono-causality, like the question, reflecting, I think, a cognitive bias. The reality of the complex human world is that effects might—I’ll say will—only be accountable in terms of varied, jointly sufficient causes. In other words, causes that only together produce the effect. When I started out on the novel, I asked myself why I wanted the narrator to have a similar ethnicity to Zafar—I seemed to want this very strongly and the strength of my feeling puzzled me. I think whenever ethnic difference comes into the picture it seems to monopolize everything. Consider the statement: Barack Obama is a very intelligent black man. The fact is, his ethnicity is what screams out. The context might warrant the use of the word black—say we were discussing why some people seem to hate him with rationality-defying fervor—but the context must justify it, if you don’t want the experience of reading the sentence to be hijacked by one word. I was much more interested in exploring class-difference than ethnic-difference and by keeping the narrator and Zafar ethnically similar, I was enabling my own mind to draw out differences of character arising from difference in class. All sorts of things come off in the friction between the two characters, but not too much of their skin color, I hope. Even their respective experiences of racism, in the very limited ways it’s touched on, are conditioned by their distinct class statuses. Incidentally, verbal tics aside, I tried to keep the language of these two characters not too dissimilar (though that’s not at all the case with other characters), partly because of the frame—namely that the narrator is reconstructing conversations—but largely because I wanted to avoid a problem I saw coming: that the differences in the form of language used by the two would come to stand for differences in their outlook. I wanted the experience of class to come through their ideas as manifest in their actions or failures to act, and I wanted to avoid certain tropes, which are easily and unintentionally evoked by a character’s choice of words. Class is arguably so pervasive in everyday life that what we experience is a parody of the idea. Sometimes you have to break through the real world to get to the imagined one.

Now let me take a swing at your very big question. The search for self is illusory. The question of what the self does—what it means—doesn’t present itself clearly other than in instances where it seems to be broken in some way. You never ponder to think how the internal combustion engine works until you see smoke coming from the hood of your car and you come to a halt on the side of the road. In its healthy, working state, a self is perhaps just the by-product of the actions of that daunting list you gave. An interesting feature of your list is that every item implies a taxonomy: Geography—countries; Class—upper, middle, lower. One of the things I was keen to explore was the man who crosses those internal borders. Even history contains borders: Zafar finds himself in the position of trying to make a choice about history, through choices about the future—I don’t want to go into details, for obvious reasons. One of the effects of exploring this fractured self was to find, rather eerily, that the more you know about Zafar, the less you feel you know him. Without spoiling anything, I think I can say that one question the novel works towards is not how much can we know of ourselves?, but how much is there there, present, effective but hidden, never to be known? What is in that darkness?

One thing I want to add here is that we seem to have gotten ourselves into a deep level of analysis; we’ve gone behind the plasterboard and into the plumbing. If a reader reads a novel in anything like the way I do, at least on a first reading, then I expect them not to be distracted by the pipework and just go into the kitchen and turn on the faucet.

At the heart of In the Light of What we Know is Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, a theorem of mathematical logic about the impossibility of proving certain truths. Could you describe the role of Gödel’s proof in your novel?

So much for kitchen faucets. There’s an excellent book by Rebecca Goldstein called Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel, which provides a highly accessible account of the life of Gödel, the theorems, and even, in slightly more than sketch-form, their proofs. Crudely stated, but in a way that captures its essence, the main theorem is this: There are truths out there, whose proofs can never be found. This kind of theorem is called an existence theorem; it doesn’t identify the truths but claims they exist—and backs it up with irrefutable mathematical proof. As I recall, Goldstein describes it as eerie in her book and it is. It’s spooky. On one figurative reading, it is a counsel of humility. In the novel, Zafar’s lack of moorings, lack of a grounded self, is accompanied by an assault on the conviction of certainty that people feel and seem to crave—the lust for certainty, as someone describes it.

But you asked about the proof. The proof of the theorem—or one kind of proof—informed the writing of the novel. We know the paradox of the statement “This statement is false.” But consider the sentence “This statement is true.” It’s clearly not a paradox, and yet why is it still eerie, still spooky? Why does it feel untethered from the paragraph, from its surroundings? Of course, this sort of thing is taken too far when you see it in overly-self-regarding and self-conscious literature. In any case, certain qualities of the proof guided me at different levels of crafting the novel, in a fractal-like way. At a higher level, it was scaffolding: useful in the construction but gone once the work was done. At an intermediate level, it provided a perspective on the basic conundrum of exploring the mind by using the mind, of trying to find the self by means of the self. And even at the very specific level of exchanges of dialogue, it came out: the circularity and self-referencing. For example, in a discussion about the correct attribution of epigrams, Zafar concludes by saying, “After all, as Churchill himself said, the false attribution of epigrams is the friend of letters and the enemy of history.” The narrator asks if that’s true and Zafar replies, “No.”

Perhaps the great irony of Gödel’s theorem is that here is a mathematical result, something that has been proven in a way that no human experience can gainsay, but whose statement is a proclamation of the limits of knowability. I don’t think this is the place to go into the novel’s exploration of the limits of human understanding, but let me make an observation concerning not limits but opportunities. One way in which the novel implicitly takes a position that there does exist knowledge waiting to be gained is by suggesting that if reason is applied, and dogma or habits of thought are not simply fallen back upon, new insights are waiting to be found. In pivotal moments, as you know, one of the characters does some hefty deductive reasoning to unravel certain mysteries and get at the truth—horrific ones at that. And reasoning is at the heart of mathematics, even when it tells us there are truths inaccessible by reason. Mathematicians employ reason to take us to places we never imagined, places of beauty, where, significantly, truth can be relied upon. The novelist will use reason in the craft, but, in the end, does something different; he or she seizes the emotions and tells a story.
Born in rural Bangladesh, Zia Haider Rahman was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and at Cambridge, Munich, and Yale Universities. He has worked as an investment banker on Wall Street and as an international human rights lawyer.

Eric Chinski is Editor in Chief at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.