The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
|The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Magda Healey|
|Summary: Short, taut and piercingly sharp despite elaborate and formal language, this compulsively readable and very skilfully written tale of one man's experience and disillusionment with the American Dream in the wake of 9/11 comes highly recommended. The ambiguous ending is a master-stroke.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 224||Date: April 2008|
|Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd|
At a café in an old part of Lahore, a Pakistani man acts treats a mysterious and a rather nervous American to a story of his encounter - and disillusionment - with the American Dream. A scion of a old family of Pakistani professionals, who still remember the old but now faded glories, he goes to Princeton on a special scholarship and on graduation is recruited by an elite firm of business valuers. New York is a revelation - a cosmopolitan centre of the most advanced technological civilisation in the world - a country in itself - and his drive and talents are recognised and appreciated, while he doesn't question either the life he's personally living or the values of the world he's joined. The attacks of September 11 come as a shock and what follows is a brilliant description of Changez', well, change (the name pun is one of the few annoyances in what's otherwise a brilliant book). His initial reaction rang very true to me: a strong pang of guilty satisfaction at the symbolism of the event, even if followed by the horrified realisation of the immediate human cost (I felt like that - and I am neither Muslim nor Asian!). What followed was an unravelling of the Americanisation of Changez' charted in sharp, quick strokes, but very convincingly. What I particularly relished was that Hamid avoided the temptation of making his character victimised in any way: he's not persecuted or singled out and even his small defiant symbolic gestures of reasserting his own ethic identity in the face of America invading New York (eg keeping a beard after returning from a holiday visit to Pakistan) pass without meaningful consequences: he hears of beatings and harassments, but he himself is cushioned from that by the money and status of his newly acquired career, and possibly just lucky: being called a fucking Arab is the worst that happens to him personally. And yet he changes: reconsiders his allegiances, responsibilities and the right and wrongs of the situation, he eventually (with a little input from a communist Chilean bookseller) completely re-evaluates his position.
There is no mystery about the end of Changez' American episode (after all we meet him in a Lahore café), although there is mystery about all that happens to him after he leaves New York. We only have his own - increasingly brief - account of what he does after returning to Pakistan and becoming a business studies university lecturer, and the real end of his story unravels in front of our eyes to stay forever ambiguous, suspended in the mid-gesture.
Despite being a short book, there are big themes in The Reluctant Fundamentalist: the change, of course, and the engines of the change, the loss and nostalgia for the past seen through rosy spectacles - both personal and historical; belonging and assimilation, the attractions of becoming a janissary for the American empire and the feeling of looking always from the outside; and of course there is America, seen in its glory of its peak achievement - the corporate efficiency - with all the resulting perks and attractions, but also revealed in its imperial monstrosity.
There is a personal strand there as well, a vague and doomed love story which adds balance to the whole tale, but which, in some ways, does nothing to move it forward: I don't think the book would have been better without it, but the way it fits into the symbolism of the whole is almost too easy. I am in two minds about it, really, with a feeling that it could be much better, but it doesn't really matter that much.
Stylistically, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is short, taut and piercingly clever despite - or maybe thanks to - stylised formal language of Changez' narration. Compulsively readable and very skilfully written, it's unusual structure brought some echoes of eastern Scheherazade-like tale-telling, and the one-sided dialogue, where the replies and behaviour of the interlocutor get to the reader only via the narrator's paraphrases give an immediacy of eavesdropping. The suspense provided by this framing exceeds the suspense of the story related by Changez; and as the progress of Changez' story is mirrored by the falling of the night ad the transformations of the street, the tension heightens. Throughout, a game is played with the mysterious American as much as a game is played with the reader, and we never know for sure who is leading whom on. The ending is a master-stroke: both duplicitous and somehow inevitable, it could hardly be bettered and provides the most chilling political commentary in the whole book.
I have been wondering about the staying power of Hamid's book: how much of it will remain when we all forget the almost-forgotten Afghanistan war (as most of us probably already forgot the India-Pakistani tensions that are the main fuel of Changez' transformation); when we forget the renditions scandal (so crucial and yet only very briefly hinted in the text). Sadly, it's hard to imagine US agents ceasing to venture abroad to carry out their secret imperial assignments: I can't envisage The Reluctant Fundamentalist losing its topicality for quite a while yet.
Monica Ali's Brick Lane offers a different but also intensely personal take on the Indian subcontinent immigrant experience, while Rose Tremaine's The Road Home is a delightful story of an Eastern European one. For a non-fiction comment and analysis of America's empire recent misbehaviours, read Interventions by Noam Chomsky.
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