Zia Haider Rahman ‘In The Light of What We Know’

Before 9/11, I was invisible, unsexed. How is it that after 9/11 suddenly I was noticed. Not just noticed but attractive, given the second look, sized up, even winked at? img_1515Was that the incidental effect of no longer being a piece with the background, of being noticed, or was it sicker than that? Was this person among us no longer the meek Indian, the meek Pakistani, the sepoy, but fully man? Before 9/11, I was hidden behind the wall of colonial guilt after having been emasculated by a history of subjugation.

It’s 2008 and there’s a knock on the door of the narrators home in south Kensington he answers to an unkempt skinny brown skinned man who he doesn’t initially recognise, but is his best friend who had dropped off of the radar ten years earlier. Here is a story told slowly over time in a series of one on one discussions in the narrators home by Zafar to his friend. Both are first generation arrivals from South East Asia, but with very different backgrounds thet earlier, as friends, the narrator had never really explored. He came from a rich Pakistani family with powerful connections and links to the military which of course Zafar knew, we then learn together that Zafar’s family came from Bangladesh, once East Pakistan and we are told of the difficulties between the two regions from the outset:

Even the name of the new nation, the most loyal expression of a people’s language, it’s label, was an act of exclusion and subordination. The préfabrication of one Choudhary Rahmat Ali: P, Punjab. A, Afghania, K Kashmir, and the -stan, the annexe of land, land of the PAK, with an anaptyxic epenthetic i, don’t you know, just to root the acronym in the land, all of which made a neat little pun, Land of the Pure, the Muslims, while it brought together its constituent peoples. Only it didn’t. Where were the Bengalis? Where was the B? 1000 miles of India between them. Surely not left out merely because the pun wouldn’t work but never conceived as a piece of the country, a part of the main. Next in 1948, the West made Urdu the sole official language of the Eastern part..

The story weaves backwards and forwards in time according to the seemingly random choice of Zafar, they had both studied in the USA together, mathematics before branching out differently, the narrator in at the very start of the sub-prime packaging (yes 2008 was an uncomfortable time for him) and Zafar had been sucked into the void that was Afghanistan. But how and why, where is the story taking us? We learn that Zafar had always been able to defend himself if necessary from violence and he tells uf of the changes he perceived in peoples attitude to him in Ney York after 9/11 as illustrated in the opening quote.

Zafar is a tortured personality, fistly we learn that his family, the people that brought him up were not his parents, back to Bangladesh:

In March of 1971, the Bengal state -at that time officially East Pakistan – declared its independence as Bangladesh. West Pakistan imported troops to put down the rebellion. Until India’s armed intervention in December 1971, Pakistani troops waged war against the Bengalis. Estimates place the death toll at 3 million, the number of women raped at over 200,000 and their resultant pregnancies at 25,000
-Dorothy Q. Thomas and Regan E. Ralph,’Rape in War: Challenging the Tradition of Impunity’.

Slowly throughout the book we learn of his relationship with the aristocratic Hampton-Wyvern family, of the difference of class, Penelope the mother and Emily the daughter, of his time with Emily not quite working out and his eventually spending time in care after  suffering a break-down with occasional visits by Emily but in spite of being informed by Emily, the narrator never visited him. Interspersed with this we learn of his time in Afghanistan working for AfDARI, the Afghan Development, Aid and Reconstruction Institute, pulled in because of his education and background:

My stated business, at least as documented, was to act as adviser to a department of the new Afghani administration. Advisers were numberless in Kabul, like stray dogs in Mumbai;even the advisers had advisers, and none of them were less than ‘special advisers’ or ‘senior-advisers’.

But where is all of this hugely sweeping story taking us? well of course after taking in large pans of world history the point we are circling is much more personal, much closer to home, the story is designed to bring the two men closer:

I’m asking questions and you’re uncomfortable. Relax. I can stop, said Zafar.
Of course he could stop and I could have stopped him…. But I said nothing. It’s a difficult thing to admit, but Zafar’s potential for cruelty has always pulled me in, binding me to him. Here he was, staying at my home, eating my food, availing himself of my hospitality. I wanted to tell him that I was the successful one here. But the ungenerous thought couldn’t withstand the reality: My marriage was a disaster; my home, this retreat, was foreign soil , made bearable only by his arrival..

Closer, which they need to become in order to discuss the heart of the matter and the Hampton-Wyverns.

A story crammed full of information and written in a very precise style, a worthwhile read.

First Published in English as “In the Light of What We Know” in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Christian Kracht ‘Imperium’

Presently Engelhardt speaks of the coconut which of course neither the peasant nor his wife nor the farm girl has ever tasted or seen he tells of the idea of encircling the globe with coconut colonies, CF4DE67A-7F4D-4566-A1C9-508BC485934Arising from his seat his almost pathological shyness vanishes when he champions his cause as an orator before sympathetic ears speaking of the sacred duty of one day paying hommage to the sun, naked in the temple of palms, only here, and he gestures around himself with outstretched arms it will not work.
Unfortunately, too long the inhospitable winter, too narrow the minds of the philistins, too loud the machines of the factories, Engelhardt climbs from the bench onto the table and down again exclaiming his credo that only those lands in eternal sunlight will survive and in them only those people who allow the salutary and beneficent rays of the day star to caress skin and head unfettered by clothing. These brothers and sisters here have made a promising start he says but they really must now sell their farm and follow him, leaving Bavaria as Moses left Egypt of old and booking passage on a ship to the Equator.

Welcome to Imperium, read for German lit month VIII
and my unusually long opening quote, but this book in its careful writing doesn’t lend itself to short quotes, more careful build ups than clever phrases. The story is set in the period at the first years of the twentieth century and concerns Engelhardt, a very intense young man and the realisation of his dream to live from the culture of the coconut whilst going naked in a tropical paradise. Here, in the quote where he has been welcomed on a naturalist farm in Bavaria he preaches about his vision and his first step, setting up in the South Sea colonies in German New Guinea. Engelhardt makes the long journey out to Herberstshöhe, the capital of Neupommern, meeting many larger than life characters on the way and, trusting those looking to help him has most of his savings stolen. When he arrives the local Consul arranges with Emma Forsayth known as the queen Emma to sell him an inhabited island, Kabacon, for his planned plantation for which he puts his entire future harvest in hock for many years to come, the following quote describes his arrival on his island and of course the book’s style:

He fell to his knees in the sand so overcome was he, and to the black men in the boat and the few natives who had found their way to the beach with a certain phlegmatic curiosity, one of them even wore a bone fragment in his lower lip as though he were parodying himself or his race, it looked as if a pious man of god were praying there before them. It might remind us civilised peoples of a depiction of the landing of the conquistador Hernan Cortez on the virginal shore of San Juan de Ulua perhaps painted by turns if this were even possible by El Greco and Gaugin each of whom by an expressive jagged stroke of the brush once more conferred upon the kneeling conqueror Engelhardt the ascetic features of Jesus Christ, thus the seizure of the island of Cabacon by our friend looked quite different depending of the viewpoint from which one observed the scenario and who one actually was.

As time over on, Engelhardt, accepted as an eccentric by the natives, who incidentally have no idea that their island has been sold and would not understand the concept, and living off of a diet made up exclusively of coconuts becomes slowly weaker and weaker as malnutrition sets in. Over time he has occasional visitors, one of which a popular musician Max Lützow who, by his stories sent back to Germany, attracts to him a cult following of young Germans with no money that decide to come and join him on his island and live as him exclusively from coconuts, they reach Herberstshöhe but not Kabacon, leading to a shanty town building up of penniless young Germans sick from tropical diseases on the outskirts of Herbertshöhe, a situation completely unacceptable for the imperial government leading to attempts by the Consul to have Engelhardt assassinated.

Kracht brings us a well constructed novel based on a true story, Engelhardt did exist, and a time in history where earnest people lived out their destinies before the outbreak of the world wars.

First Published in German as “Imperium” in 2012 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch.
Translated into English by Daniel Bowles and published in 2015 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Thomas Hettche ‘The Arbogast Case’

Thomas Hettche’s Arbogast Case, based on a true story of criminal mis-justice in West Germany stretches from the early 50’s immediate post war times through the building of the Berlin Wall up to the period of  civil unrest towards the end of the 60’s.

The book is roughly divided into four parts, firstly the initial incident and it’s aftermath leading up to Arbogasts sentence, the second part portrays the detention centre and helps us to understand the utter hopelessness of The detainee’s life in this centre at that time. The third part concerns itself with the fight to get a re-trial and the last part deals with this trial.


Hans Arbogast, a married travelling sales man, was no saint and nor was the hitch hiker, one of the refugees from the east living in the Ringsheim camp on that September day in 1953. “After awhile, he felt her hand on his neck and her fingers slipping inside his shirt collar…… “Why don’t we just stop somewhere along the way?” “Do we want to do that?” “Yes.” Her voice was so close against his face that he could feel her moist breath on his skin.” Marie Gurth then died in his arms during a second “vigorous” bout of love making.

His trial hinged on an expert witness who attested to undoubted strangulation, against the view of the legist, based on some poor photos. A possible explanation for this is given towards the end of the book “I went to see Arbogast yesterday, and I do think that what happened back then was some sort of accident. But also an eruption, a sort of blown circuit, a storm, a vestige from the war that suddenly discharged.” “What’s the war got to do with it?” “He’s got it in him.” “So?” “I think everyone felt that back then. People knew the scent of it all too well. The jurors, the judges, the press, all of them knew one thing: That had to go. It mustn’t be allowed. The fear was too great. Then people got civilized—and now the fear is gone. People have actually forgotten it was ever there.”

Hettche then helps us to understand the particular prison that was the Bruchsal Penitentiary, copied on a British idea that was never applied so purely in Britain, Bruchsal was a panopticon prison, designed to de-humanise its inmates at a lowest possible cost. This part of the book seems long but is powerful.

It took his new lawyers the best part of 7 years to get his second hearing, German law “as it existed today, contained all of history inside it…He’d often thought he could hear echoes of the language used during Germany’s imperial past in the current Criminal Code; in certain passages, there were also shades of the heated rhetoric from the period between the wars, when new laws had been drafted in rapid succession; then, too, there were tones of the horrible premeditated sobriety of the Nazis, who had stormed across the Penal Code, incorporating into it one reform after the next….all these disparate voices within the law constituted the real prison that held Arbogast captive.”

There is no doubt in the readers mind that the case against Arbogast would be dropped and as the judge says “Only Hans Arbogast knows if we have made a mistake.”

I found this an enlightening read, a type of historical procedural thriller and many thanks to Farrar the English language publishers for having taken this book on.

First published in Germany by DuMont Verlag in 2001
Translated into English by Elizabeth Gaffney and published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 2003
Translated into French by Nicole Casanova and published by Grasset et Fasquelle in 2003