First, thanks to Jenny Herrera for suggesting Zia Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know.
There are many thoughtful reviews of the book, hailing its breadth of knowledge and scope, its embedded accounts of interactions between the brilliant “other” and class structures at the university and work in the countries where one never seems to belong, and its insider look at the world of finance and the complexities of Afghanistan. My favorite is the one by James Wood in a May New Yorker .
But for someone like me who rarely reads novels now, the primary rewards were different from what those reviewers valued so highly. Every 10 pages or so one of the streams of rumination that constitute a major part of the book hits home with me in the same manner as does encountering a new friend who clearly is pondering many of the same questions that perplex you.
For example, Rahman and I wonder about the role of intent as a prerequisite for holding someone responsible. “But I did not intend to ….” should remove what level of culpability? For me, Rahman has precisely the right pithy answer: The only virtue of a lack of intent is the clear conscience of the actor. His point is that “lack of intent” should not be a powerful mitigating factor.
For me a related question has always been “If humans are to be held responsible for their actions, how far down the causal chain does responsibility for consequences extend?” Multiple generations? The law in the U.S. has never been eager to tackle this question because to do so would boggle the minds of the judges. So to make life easy for our minds, judges hand down their judgments as if distal causes are better left to the ethics seminar room. Rahman, as if from out of nowhere, will explore this question and others like it for a couple paragraphs.
In other words, this novel is not one carried along by the narrative structure. It is overwhelmingly a novel of ideas.