Servants of Life

In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman.  Picador.  497 pp.  $17.00 ****1/2

This is the last book—the last of many—that my friend Levi recommended to me.  He always recommended books as if to say: Go buy this and start reading it tonight (though I never did that).  He went on and on about it the morning we talked (in the corner table in Whole Foods where we always sat, drinking coffee); he had a great memory for detail about anything he’d read.  The book sounded vastly complex, which it is, a novel about finance, mathematics, terrorism, international banking, the economic crisis of 2008, racism, friendship, romance, sex.  He had said all that to me, and then finished, with a little smile on his face, with the words, “But I think it’s also a religious novel.  It’s ultimately a religious novel.”

It was a slow, rich reading experience, sometimes astounding, sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes boring, and I had gotten to the last chapter, four pages long, and muttered to myself, “If this is going to be a religious novel”—which was the reason I was reading it—“it’ll have to do that in the last four pages.”

Then it did.  It did just that.  It was as if Levi were sitting there smiling at me.

The narrator is a London banker, a man whose family origins were in Pakistan but who grew up in Princeton with his professor father.  As his career and marriage are unraveling following the financial crisis of 2008—the very men who urged him to make certain investments just months before are now blaming him for doing so—an old friend shows up on his doorstep, so disheveled that our narrator hardly recognizes him.  But it’s a man named Zafar, who wants to reconnect, take a pause from his life, tell his story.  In a sense the whole book is about the story he tells, or the interaction of the two friends, the way they try to understand things together.  For a period of time their ongoing conversation is the most vivid thing in their lives.

Both of these men are in what I call the hyper-achieving generation, people with multiple talents and enormous energy, who can’t seem to decide what to do with themselves.  Should I go into I-banking?  Go to Law School?  Write a novel?  My wife hears these questions from Duke students all the time.[1]  Zia Haider Rahman, the rather young looking man in the jacket photo, has done all three, has also been educated at Oxford, Cambridge, Munich, and Yale universities.  There’s something obnoxious and annoying about that, I must say.  But the man has written a hell of a novel.  My hat’s off to him.

Zafar’s story involves an element of international intrigue, issues about terrorism and a trip to Afghanistan which span the whole novel, but much more interesting to me was his relationship with an aristocratic British woman named Emily, and the way that intrigue played out in both of their lives.  They both belong to a generation—here comes another generalization, which nevertheless seems true to me—which puts the work first, the relationship second.  They’re always meeting in some elegant hotel in a far-flung city for brief and erotically intense periods, then suddenly parting.  What frustrates Zafar—to the point of real rage—is that Emily never in the least explains what’s up, why she can only arrive on such and such a day (which he suddenly finds out that morning), must leave x number of hours later, though she doesn’t tell him that until it’s about to happen.  It’s as if her work needs to be secret—and for all I know it does—but she also has a certain hauteur, a coldness, of the British upper classes, as if to say, You don’t need to know that, little man.  You’re here to satisfy me, then I depart.  The relationship isn’t exactly like that.  But it verges on that.

Emily’s mother is the same way with Zafar, and there’s a scene where Emily and Zafar get together with another couple of Emily’s acquaintance, a European and his girlfriend, and there’s a subtle racism in the way the man treats Zafar that is unmistakable, and that Zafar, in a deeply satisfying way, will not accept.   Moments like that are a part of his rage.  The whole international intrigue is also part of it, but these smaller moments are important.

It’s impossible to summarize this novel, suggest all the things it brings together, but I’d like to talk at least briefly about those final four pages.  Zafar was a mathematics prodigy, that’s a major part of how the narrator remembers him, and one of his heroes was Kurt Godel, who is known for his Incompleteness Theorem, which I know nothing about.  What it seems to say, as it’s explained in the novel, is that mathematics forms a beautiful system that is breathtaking in its complexity, moments of discovery are almost religious in nature, but it depends on certain things that can’t be proven.  I assume that’s what is incomplete.  You can go to amazing places if you begin with those assumptions.  But what you know depends on things you don’t.

I won’t quote the entire, quite beautiful paragraph at the end where the narrator explains all this (really, if you do nothing else, you should find this book in a bookstore and read the last four pages; they won’t spoil a thing); I’ll just quote a few lines.  The theorem takes us “to the point at which two roads diverge, that we have to choose and the choice is not a happy one. . . .  Down one road is unbearable inconsistency, a world in which black is white and white is black and there is no way to tell them apart . . . The other road . . . no less daunting and hard . . . is a twilight world, for in its manifold embrace are things that are true, crystal blue propositions, which are as true as a man could ever hope to feel something to be true, yet which things—irony of ironies—the man will never know to be true, not because they merely lie beyond the wit of the creature but because mathematics herself condemns men to ignorance.  This is the strangest thing: mathematical truths for which there can never be proof.”

This is where, after this whole elaborate story, in a discussion of mathematics, of all things, the novel becomes religious, though it is not the kind of religion everyone is happy with.  What Zafar has been saying all along is that “understanding is not what this life has given us, that answers can only beget questions, that honesty commands a declaration not of faith but of ignorance, and that the only mission available to us, one laid to our charge, if any hand was in it, is to let unfold the questions, to take to the river knowing not if it runs to the sea, and accept our place as servants of life.”

It helps to have someone to do that with.  As an earlier anecdote tells us in the same chapter, you feel better with a companion not because you would make decisions differently, but because you’ll feel better about them if you’ve talked them over.  The novel ends with a vision of “two people undeterred by time, walking and talking, bumping against each other, as they discuss the things that matter to them and why they matter.”

These words describe Godel and Einstein, but they also apply to the two friends in the novel.  And they’re a fitting coda to my friendship with Levi.

[1] The attraction of I-banking is somewhat beyond me, I must admit.  But it seems to be the ultimate area where brilliant people measure their achievement, and they measure it by how much money they make.  Everything in my life tells me that’s shallow, but they do it.  It’s as if their bank balance is their GPA, but there’s no limit.  You can go above 4.0.  Way above it.