A serious polemic, with class as one of its central themes but also a fascinating deliberation on the issue of belonging in a globalised world. Did I enjoy this book? I’m still not sure. The two central characters are the two narrators who offer over five hundred pages of polemical wisdom. The trouble is, there is only so much wisdom a reader can genuinely absorb in any one novel without starting to switch off. Rahman offers philosophical insights by the bucket load with the danger of placing his readers in overload mode. The plot, such as it is, is rather light, and when the novel does get involved in real stuff towards the end, it becomes all rather fanciful. Without rooting his two narrators into something more solid it is difficult to warm to either of them. And being a little old fashioned in this respect, if I don’t warm to the characters I find it difficult to ultimately warm to the novel. I’m not a particularly fast reader at the best of times – I like to savour a good novel- but this one seemed to take forever to get through.

If all this sounds rather negative and unappealing I apologise. There is, despite the above, plenty to admire about this novel. Perhaps in time it will be regarded as something of a classic novel of the post 9/11 era and I may revisit it and learn to love it.

The two main protagonists, the two narrators, are both of South Asian origin and that presents a refreshing twist from the all too usual Anglo-Saxon world view. But in truth, the nationality of the two narrators is somewhat irrelevant because it is not their national or religious origin that is under the microscope but rather their conflicting class origins. One was born into money the other was raised in village poverty. And it is the latter who becomes obsessed with the strange intricacies and trappings of the British well-to-do.  What we are offered in the end is not so much a story of 21st century globalisation, though that is a continual backdrop throughout, but more a good old fashioned story of British class interplay involving love, obsession, hatred and perhaps even a dollop of self- hatred thrown in for good measure. I would dare to suggest that this would have been a better novel had it focused a little more on the global politics of our time and a little less on the personal obsessions of our lead player. The two cannot be separated of course but for me the balance was a little out of kilter.            

Despite my personal reservations there is much in this work to admire. Take for example Rahman’s insights into the financial world, of which he has much first-hand experience. Rahman is unambiguous in his denunciations from the outset;

‘The United Kingdom’s Financial Services Authority was privately the laughing stock of bankers. They advocated a principles-based regulation, they said, with a light touch they proudly touted at every conference, in every press release, but they were useless and we knew it. We hired the regulator’s own former supervisors to head up our in-house compliance departments. We lured them away from government service with lucrative private-sector salaries. And because they knew that that was the sort of future awaiting the favoured, they were compliant with us long before they ever set foot in our offices.’ P64

What a wonderfully damning indictment of government. And given that Labour was in power for thirteen of those heady years, what a wonderfully damning indictment of the Labour Party itself.      

In addition to these illuminating insights into the murky world of banking and finance, Rahman offers his readers equally damning insights on the equally murky world of global politics. By far my favourite passage emanates from Afghanistan, that bottomless cesspit of western colonial and imperialist meddling. Rahman, speaking through the eyes of a Pakistani general, gets straight to the point;

‘The Americans know nothing about the realities, the basic facts of this part of the world. The British are no better. The British are delusional. Just the other day, the British ambassador was complaining to me: if only the American soldier would behave half as well as his British counterpart. In what way? I asked him. We hand out sweets to the children, he said, we respect local customs and we don’t go charging in all guns blazing. I almost throttled him. Respect customs at the barrel of a loaded rifle? They still regard themselves as the benevolent imperialists, but in Afghanistan the duplicitous shit-heads are hated even more than the Americans. Do they think we in this part of the world don’t know history? They tried fucking us up the Khyber Pass every chance they got but still they think they’re nobility. Fuckers.’P354

Quite so.

If Rahman is outstanding on matters financial and political, he simply excels when it comes to the small matter of our place in the universe. I don’t think I’ve come across a novelist that grasps the existential dialectic quite as profoundly as Rahman. In this field he is the master, exceeding even the mighty Salman Rushdie. The following two passages, and by no means the only ones, help elevate Rahman’s novel well above your average thinking-persons novel. This is a cerebral novel in every respect and if it is a little cold in places it is perhaps an accurate reflection of just how cold this universe can be. Rahman, through his central protagonist Zafar, has this piece of cold comfort to offer  his readers;

‘The whole thing is too abstract, continued Zafar, this business of our lives standing for something else. All we know is that we don’t want it to stand for nothing. So we dive headlong into becoming heroes, becoming the big swinging dick on Wall Street or the rock star or the hot-shot human-rights lawyer. Which is about making our lives stand for something that our intelligence can grasp, saving us from confronting what we fear might be true – or what we would fear if we gave ourselves the chance – namely, that we’re accidental pieces of flesh, mutton without meaning. P73

Pursuing with this exact same existential theme Zafar/Rahman muses on the myth of ‘free will’ and knits it precisely with the perennial question of class.

‘ I have always felt that choice is a rarity in life, that it lies in wait in the crevices of time, to surprise us when we seem to have the least room to manoeuvre. The grand architecture of our time on earth bears no choice at all, no trace of will, free or otherwise. Without our will we are born and against it we die. We do not choose our mothers, any more than they choose the children they bear. We do not choose the circumstances of our parents, the home and inheritance, the unearned talents, or the circumstances of our formative infant years when our brains congeal into a steady state, and the neural pathways set us on the course of our lives. Most of the time, we heed unwritten rules. They may be rules of culture and conditioning, patterns imprinted on the tender firmament of youth, or they may be the rules knotted into our brains, woven with DNA by our biological parents, but they are still rules, by which we live, by which we are governed. That notion of choice as we move through the world, the free will that we claim so proudly, is only the reflection of the body’s foregone direction, an image in the distorting mirror of ego, a trick of the light.’ P239

Marx perhaps put it more dialectically, more succinctly than Rahman when he explained that men make their own history but not in the circumstances of their own choosing. Rahman is a tad more pessimistic than Marx in this contentious question of ‘free will’, but both writers are clear that whatever free will we may have is clearly circumscribed by the material conditions into which we are born. The likes of David Cameron will never know what it is to fear the next bill landing on the hallway floor, assuming that is that one is lucky enough to even have a hallway floor to call ones own. It’s patently obvious to those that were not born into the privileged elite that it really is all about class. On this particular piece of wisdom Rahman cannot be faulted.

Strange, but as I proceed through this review I find myself increasingly warming to this novel. I couldn’t wait to finish the thing on first reading but now I find myself drawn to its inner strengths. Perhaps as the years unfold this really will become a classic novel of our times;  “the novel  I’d hoped Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ would be”, as Alex Preston wryly put it. Yes, I’ve definitely warmed to the beast.

End JPK Copyright 29/4/15

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Last Updated ( Monday, 04 May 2015 09:34 )