Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.
Jessamyn West, 1973.
Great writers are significant in terms of the human awareness they promote.
A recent book, In the Light of What We Know, by Zia Haider Rahman (Picador), raised interesting, and, sometimes disturbing questions. It highlighted the gaps between the principles we stand for and how we enact them, asking questions about who we like to think we are and our own held truths.
Like one of his protagonists, Zafar, Rahman is a Bangladeshi born mathematician, investment banker and human rights lawyer. This is Rahman’s first novel and the size of it tempts one to judge him as anxious to cram everything he knows into it, to show off. However, the writing is so focused on the two protagonists, both tightly drawn, both slowly revealed in the way that we are all slowly revealed to those who wish to know us, that this assumption is proved false.
The central tenet of the story of two South Asian men, Zafar and the narrator, is Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem which according to Rahman states that “within any given system, there are claims which are true but which cannot be proven to be true” (p 10) and later further elaborates that “truth is not always to be found and that we cannot know ahead of the search whether the truth is of a kind that can be uncovered (p545)”. In the book the narrator uncovers the intersections of two lives: his own and that of Zafar. Zafar tells his story to the narrator as a confession that tries to make sense and understand the truth of his actions. In doing so, he forces the narrator to confront his own life. Zafar, whose story meanders through the United States, Britain and Afghanistan, is seeking some redemption for his perceived sin of being, of not belonging and also for an unspeakable crime to which he never puts words but leaves us 95% certain that it is one he has committed. As I understand the philosophical aspect of Gödel’s theorem the truth cannot be fully discovered if we do not have all the information available to us, and this is how our lives are proscribed: we can only make decisions on the basis of what we know.
Linked to this unvoiced crime are the crimes of assumption, delusional self-belief and betrayal. Who betrays who is not fully articulated leaving the reader in a state of uncertainty: where does truth begin and where does it end?
As the narrator says, 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. Both roads take us into mathematical realms of simple language stripped bare of human conceit. Down one road is unbearableinconsistency, a world in which black is white and white is black and there is no way to tell them apart, in which – without a hint of exaggeration, with not so much as a touch of hyperbole or melodrama – one equates zero. This leaves us looking down the other road, no less daunting and hard but that has the merit if not leading us to the mercy of understanding then at least of delivering us from the torment of contradictions (p552.)”
He adds “that this way is the way of simple language but this language does not necessarily reveal truth but may hold us and provide us with hope.”
One of the problems of trying to find a truth, particularly of ourselves, is the problem of memory. We assume memory is fixed and are surprised to find that it is not. In our assumption about the immutability of memory is the assumption that in the memory lies the truth. The problem is that memory is changeable and open to revision upon each examination. Another problem is that it is established within an experience which is open to interpretation based on perception and past history.
I recall a conversation with my mother as I tried to help her understand something of myself. I told her of my memory of certain childhood events. She was surprised that I had such a strong memory of something that involved her but of which she had no recall. I could only reply that our memory was based on different emotional responses to the events. I had a similar experience concerning a client of mine who had sustained severe head injuries that compromised her ability to retain information. The claims officer with whom I was dealing on her behalf contended that she was malingering because she remembered certain conversations with him. I explained that these conversations were perceived as threatening, and remembered from the emotional impact of the conversation and if one dug below what she remembered, it would be stripped down to fear of the power the official could wield in terms of benefits allowed.
Memory is important in how we view ourselves and is related to self-consciousness. Zafar is prone to depression and, like so many, resists antidepressant medication for fear of the loss of self. In his examination of this, again the Incompleteness Theorem rears its head. Who are we? Who is my I? And how much does the imagination of who we think we are, who we would like to be, play into what we think of as our Self? He realises that the notion of self and its dependence on consciousness is tentative. When he agrees to medication he feels better. Zafar says that he now understood something that he had not previously realised: that he could still be himself, but a different self, previously unimagined, a self that was not over-ridden by depression.
“The mistake did not lie in thinking this is true. The mistake was that it was remotely relevant. It is irrelevant simply because the imaginary ideal human being, the one I believed I could conceivably be, is an unreachable person who I could only wish to be, unreachable in any circumstance. The real me was always the me I was at any given moment, and not the unattainable me I could fancifully call from my imagination (p447).”
Freud argued in his essay The Unconscious (1915) that the over-emphasis on consciousness “plunges us into insoluable difficulties of psycho-physical parallelism” which overestimates the role of consciousness and denies the parallel unconscious state. We fool ourselves. We fool ourselves by who we think we are without examining how that is upheld by our actions.
The West is in Afghanistan because life has been upended and is difficult. We believe that we can make it better. But we are patronising and are unaware of how our actions portray us. The NGOs are ignorant of the changed circumstances of the individual. Afghanistan and its people are regarded in terms of a collective. Zafar, sensitised to racial assumptions, recognises this. He is in love with Emily, an upper middle-class English woman, who works with an undisclosed organisation in Afghanistan. She is secretive in every aspect of her life leaving everyone unsure who or what she is. Zafar has been asked, possibly at the prompting of Emily, to come to Afghanistan to examine patterns of donations and how they are being used. One morning he returns to his room find that it has been broken into by Emily, ostensibly to find him. He is astonished by her insensitive behaviour.
“Had she really come in, I asked myself, knocked on the door and, failing to get a response, smashed a window before asking anyone? Had she really left a roll of Afs to cover the costs? I thought of Suaif, this middle-aged engineering professor reduced to guarding a gate; this proud man who slept in a corner of a room in the AfDARI compound set aside for menial staff; this man in his home away from home, who watches helplessly as a woman enters and, by the power invested in her by the UN, ISAF, NATO, the West, and her white skin, smashes in a window to get in or look in; this man who then stands stripped of his authority, what feeble authority it ever was, as she hands him cash – did she bother to count? – to cover the costs and keep him sweet (p410).”
These are fictional characters who hold a mirror to ourselves, our attitudes, conscious or otherwise, such as our ignorance (of who Suaif was for instance), our assumption that in a foreign country where we hold power to the right to drink, dress inappropriately, destroy and leave the other to deal with the consequences, which is at the heart of our racialism.
What I love about a good novel is its capacity, through fictional characters, to reveal something about ourselves. I have heard people refer to novels in somewhat dismissive terms as if they were inferior to biography or autobiography because of their fictitious nature. But I think that sometimes we are more likely to allow ourselves to go to an imaginative place in order to search out the unknowns when the story does not pretend to be the truth.