August 26, 2014
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aaww.org | Article Link | by Naeem Mohaiemen
When you turn to page 186 of In the Light of What We Know, you encounter an illustration. The novel’s two main characters have by this point discussed many things, and readers may have already been craving visual aids. But this is the first time the text is interrupted by a diagram. You sense, therefore, the arrival of a crucial digression.
The illustration is of a diagonal line that runs from the top left corner of the diagram to the bottom right, interrupted mid-way by a vertical rectangle. On the other side of the rectangle, two diagonals slope downward in the same direction as the first, one atop the other. If you are not particular about the condition of your books (as I am not), you will have the urge to fold the page to better work out the optical illusion. It appears as if the descending diagonal line continues, after interruption, along the upper diagonal on the right. But folding would reveal the opposite—that it is actually the second, lower diagonal that it is joined with.
Named “Poggendorff’s illusion,” after the nineteenth-century German physicist Johann Poggendorff who discovered it in a drawing, the illusion is something Zafar, the novel’s British-Bangladeshi protagonist, starts explaining to our unnamed narrator. But as with many other incomplete yet meticulously plotted diversions within Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, Zafar does not finish the story. It is up to the narrator to fill in the gaps, after “consulting pages on the Internet,” as one of the novel’s many Infinite Jest-like footnotes inform us.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons