Read In the Light of What We Know Online

Authors: Zia Haider Rahman

In the Light of What We Know (43 page)

In that shift is, I think, a change in our attitude to causation, from a belief that causation can be understood to a recognition that at certain times it is useless. Causation is about how things were necessarily true, because this led to that. In our conversations in those wintry days, there was always a quality of longing about them, particularly when they reached far back. Longing for what? When Zafar spoke about the past, I felt the presence of many pasts, the one that was spoken, but also other unlived lives, the lives uncaused, yet imagined. There is not one past but many, and every memory carries the spirit of all.

*   *   *

After a few days of reading from the bag of notebooks, I raised again, tentatively and for the last time, the idea of him writing a book.

You must be short of cash. A book could give you an income.

We were in the kitchen. Maria, the housekeeper, had left some pasta marinara for supper.

Zafar gave me a glancing look, as if to acknowledge my cheek in raising the matter again.

I have enough, he said. I had more, until last year when my parents nearly lost their house. Northern Rock collapsed at the same time as they came out of the fixed-rate period on their mortgage. They were hammered by the rates at the same time the bank was tightening up on risky loans. I have a little equity in a company that was doing well. Some of the dividend now goes to them to help make mortgage repayments. But I have enough. I don’t spend much.

What company? I asked.

I am embarrassed now for failing to express appropriate commiseration for his parents’ difficulties. The small remark about them should have struck me in a number of ways. Yet all my curiosity fixed on the surprising news that Zafar had invested in shares, for Zafar had never seemed to me to have an interest in owning anything, in assets, not even a house. And the remark about his parents was also the first mention of anything recent in his life. Of course, it didn’t tell me where in the world he’d been living, it didn’t tell me what he’d been doing, but I did not take the opportunity in front of me .

I remember a lawyer friend of mine—actually a friend of Meena’s—explaining to me that in a criminal trial in which the defendant has prior convictions, the prosecution cannot, other than in exceptions, raise those convictions in court. But, the lawyer friend explained, if the defendant in any way claims he has a good character, then those convictions can be raised by the prosecution to rebut the defendant’s claim.

I don’t mean to liken Zafar to a criminal, but there has always been a certain mystery about him, and it was moments like this one, when he volunteered some information, that opened the door to inquiry. I could have asked him about his parents. I could have asked him when exactly he had heard they were in trouble and how he had heard. I could have asked him where he was at the time. But I didn’t. Instead I asked him what company he’d invested in.

What company?

Zafar then told me a remarkable story, which again underlined how little I had really known. In 1994, he explained, he met an extraordinary woman at JFK airport.

I remember, he said, that the Dow had closed above four thousand just a few days earlier, the first time it had ever done so. There was an exuberance on the Street that was exciting and scary—think of extreme sports. Every banker was charging every meal and cab ride to his expense account, and firms were turning a blind eye. You can tell a firm’s hit a downturn when the row of private cabs waiting outside the building shortens. A couple of months earlier, I’d received my first bonus—which wasn’t as large as you think; I never fought hard enough. I took my first vacation since that week long ago at a holiday camp on the English seaside, arranged by concerned social workers. I spent a week in Panama.

With this woman?

I went alone. I met Marcy Feuerstein in the airport lounge, where she was trying to calm her three-year-old daughter. The girl took one look at me and was silenced. She was fascinated by me for some inexplicable reason in the way maybe only children can be. I sat near them and smiled at the child, who smiled back. That was the beginning of our conversation.

Marcy, it transpired, had just left Microsoft and was starting up her own business, as well as raising Josie by herself. She lived in California but had just finished three days of meetings in New York and was on her way back. She talked eagerly about the pitches she’d made to potential investors, and what she said intrigued me. It seemed to me a remarkable, exciting thing, this field she was entering. Even then I knew that my excitement was not really to do with making money. Marcy was attractive—she was beautiful—and there was some flirtation in our conversation, but even that was not at the root of my interest; I don’t think it was. Marcy was starting a business in wireless technologies for corporations, to provide the hardware and software to enable companies to network their firm-wide resources wirelessly. Such technology was almost unimaginable; it was 1994.

When I was a boy, I was intrigued to read about the properties of light. I read that what we call light is only the visible part of a spectrum of radiation. I learned why the sky is blue and how a rainbow is formed. And then I read about how light is both wave and particle, and I saw a diagram somewhere of the double-slit experiment. I thought about light, and it occurred to me that we cannot see light rays going across our field of vision. I know now that even when we see rays of sunlight shining through the window of a chapel on a winter’s afternoon, we do not see even one single ray of light that makes it to the ground because every ray we think we see is in fact no ray at all but the impression left by streams of light reflected off dust particles and fortuitously sent in the direction of our eyes. The image of shafts of light with dancing motes, so common in words and photographs, remains an illusion, you see. The conclusion of this is that if we look on a ray of light from the side, and the air is free of dust, then the light will in fact be invisible.

Wireless links, connections without material ties, without constraints that hold you in place, ethereal vines that reach out to you, tethers for the rootless. I didn’t really know how to think about Marcy’s business idea itself; she seemed to have barrels of energy and a riot of ideas, but over the years I’ve come to suspect that the true source of her vitality and drive was a fear of being accused of failing her daughter. I can’t know for sure, because I did not know Marcy before Josie, nor, for that matter, do I know the Marcy in another universe who never had Josie. It was, in any event, the magic of these invisible wires tying people together that thrilled me, as I sat there in the lounge, watching Marcy stroke her daughter’s hair unconsciously while discussing all the issues involved, how to make wireless secure, how to make it stable, the problems of interference, establishing connectivity across different platforms. On the strength of my wonder, I invested in her business and came to receive a small investor’s dividend each year, although now paid from shares in the large tech company that eventually bought her out with its own stock. The dividend is enough for me.

You never told me, I said. I was annoyed that he hadn’t mentioned any of this to me.

What for?

Maybe I would have invested?

Most British universities weren’t even hooked up to the Internet. Would you have invested in corporate wireless networking systems?

*   *   *

I ask myself now if Zafar had always thought of me as lacking courage. I remember seeing him once after he returned from a weekend parachuting. He jumped tandem, he said—it was his first time and perhaps he hasn’t jumped again. He loved it and described it as something like swimming. You’re so high up in the air, he said, the ground seemingly unchanging, that you really can’t tell you’re falling. Seconds that seem like hours pass before the first small chute bursts open, pulling out the main chute, and you feel yourself yanked like a rag doll. I listened to Zafar waxing lyrical, and of course the thought passed through my mind that he hadn’t asked me to come along with him. If I had asked him why, he would have answered—as I knew—with the same question: Would I have come? I suppose I didn’t ask in order to avoid an exchange that would only diminish me.

*   *   *

During that conversation, I continued to push him just a little further on the business of writing. Eventually, after a pause, Zafar began telling me something that I did not immediately recognize as a story.

Alessandro Moisi Iacoboni was born in 1942 in a village four hours by mule from the town of M
___
, in a part of Italy where the spoken language is neither Italian nor German but shows the influences of both. Alessandro’s birth came nine months and two weeks after a day in June when an ill-disciplined division of Heeresgruppe C of the German Wehrmacht swept through the village, an incursion that caused a degree of embarrassment in those quarters of Italian society, which had enthusiastically supported Mussolini’s alliance with Germany.

Who cares about this? I asked, but Zafar merely continued.

Alessandro’s mother died three days after what was by all accounts a terrible labor. It was this mother who might have kindled in little Alessi the fire of the Jewish faith but, as it was, her death cleared the way for the Catholic nuns of Our Lady of Modena, in the village school, whose influence found no resis—

What about writing your own story?

I interrupted Zafar and, as I listen to the recording again, I am rather ashamed that I did so. Listening is hard, as my friend once said, because you run the risk of having to change the way you see the world. I can admit something now, which this interruption only evidenced: I have been inclined to force the people around me into boxes. It’s a subtle thing, but to hear someone talk without imposing one’s own expectations, one’s own categories—I’ve never been very good at it. Of course, only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches, but listening well is—to stay with the metaphor—the only way to walk a few steps in his shoes. How does someone fail to grasp that, something so absurdly obvious?

It
is
my story. It’s the story I want to tell, said Zafar.

Zafar never finished telling it, but I found it later in his notebooks, where, he’d said, I could read it if I wanted. I don’t know what to make of it.

I have rather regretted interrupting him. For one thing, it would have been another kind of story to hear it from his own lips, though I’m inclined to think his memory would not have conjured all its detail. But I have assuaged my regret with the thought that if I do not consider the story a piece of the highest sentimentalism, then perhaps it is because in the end it went unsaid, unspoken, as if it were something that remained where it ought to have remained, as if its proper home was the privacy of that recess where decent men tend lost love.

I think now that he was right: He said that it was
his
story and it was the story
he
wanted to tell. It seems obvious to me now that every story belongs to its teller. So I include the passages from the relevant notebook here and let them speak for themselves.

 

13

Alessandro Moisi Iacoboni

If there is any substitute for love, it’s memory. To memorize, then, is to restore intimacy.
—Joseph Brodsky, “Nadezhda Mandelstam: An Obituary”
Great is this power of memory, exceedingly great, O my God, a spreading limitless room within me. Who can reach its uttermost depth? Yet it is a faculty of my soul and belongs to my nature. In fact I cannot grasp all that I am. Thus the mind is not large enough to contain itself: but where can that part of it be which it does not contain? Is it outside itself and not within? How can it not contain itself? As this question struck me, I was overcome with wonder and almost stupor. Here are men going afar to marvel at the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the long courses of great rivers, the vastness of the ocean, the movement of the stars, yet leaving themselves unnoticed.
—Saint Augustine,
Confessions,
Book X, “Memory,” translated into German by Romano Guardini and from the German into English by Elinor Briefs
Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget.
—James Baldwin,
Giovanni’s Room

Alessandro Moisi Iacoboni was born in 1942 in a village four hours by mule from the town of M
___
, in a part of Italy where the spoken language is neither Italian nor German but shows the influences of both. Alessandro’s birth came nine months and two weeks after a day in June when an ill-disciplined division of Heeresgruppe C of the German Wehrmacht swept through the village, an incursion that caused a degree of embarrassment in those quarters of Italian society which had enthusiastically supported Mussolini’s alliance with Germany.

Alessandro’s mother died three days after what was by all accounts a terrible labor. It was this mother who might have kindled in little Alessi the fire of the Jewish faith but, as it was, her death cleared the way for the Catholic nuns of Our Lady of Modena, in the village school, whose influence found no resistance in the decreased Iacoboni household. The boy’s father, having barely tolerated his wife’s superstitions and now embittered by the cruelties of war, believed that the God of Abraham, far from deserving of Jacob’s esteem, warranted a good hiding. He would leave Alessi in the care of the good sisters of the Savior, while the villagers attended Sunday mass, and he would make the journey to M
___
in order to replenish the stock. Signor Iacoboni was the village grocer.

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