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The Reluctant Fundamentalist
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B : decent concept, well-written in parts, but falls frustratingly short in its larger ambitions
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The complete review's Review:
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an irritating book.
It is, of course, meant to be irritating, to goad and challenge the reader, the seemingly simply-told story meant to question a whole way of life, but it's not always the right parts of the novel that rub the reader in the wrong way.
I could translate for you but perhaps it would be better if I selected a number of delicacies for us to share. You will grant me that honor ? Thank you. There, it is done, and off he goes.This kind of stage-direction-in-speech, and the absence of voices that are obviously there can get annoying. It emphasises the fact that Changez is in complete control of the situation, but makes the American more of a mystery than he has to be (and leaves one wondering why he's willing to listen to all this without asking more questions or trying to engage Changez in something more of an actual conversation).
Hamid does present his story in this way for a reason. Not everything is quite what it seems and the way Changez leads the American through his story (and then the streets of Lahore) ultimately makes for an agreeably chilling (and still somewhat ambiguous) ending. But it doesn't seem the most effective way of pulling it off.
One of the major problems of Hamid's approach is that the American remains a peculiarly shadowy figure. Why is he in Old Anarkali ? And why is he willing to listen to Changez go on and on and on ?
One thing that is clear is that the American is carrying a gun: if not exactly trigger-happy he is certainly itchy-fingered, and while its presence is never openly acknowledged, Changez makes clear from the beginning that he is aware that the American is packing. When Changez first brings it up he is still relatively circumspect:
You seem worried. Do not be; this burly fellow is merely our waiter, and there is no need to reach under your jacket, I assume to grasp your wallet, as we will pay him later, when we are done.It comes up several more times, and by the end, he's much more direct:
When you sit in that fashion, sir, with your arm curved around the back of the empty chair beside you, a bulge manifests itself through the lightweight fabric of your suit, precisely at that point parallel to the sternum where the undercover security agents of our country -- and indeed, one assumes, of all countries -- tend to favor wearing an armpit holster for their sidearms.Changez has a particular way with words, especially regarding the American. Rather than stating the obvious, he offers a more agreeable alternative -- one that permits both him and the American to continue their charade. And that it is a charade right from the get-go is already clear from Changez's willingness to engage the American:
Come, tell me, what were you looking for ? Surely, at this time of day, only one thing could have brought you to the district of Old Anarkali -- named, as you may be aware, after a courtesan immured for loving a prince -- and that is the quest for the perfect cup of tea. Have I guessed correctly ?Surely.
Unfortunately, there's not much subtlety to Changez's observations and guesses, and so much becomes very obvious sooner than it has to. So, for example, in a conventional narrative the fact where the American chooses to sit could be slipped in much more subtly than Hamid chooses to do so here ("You prefer that seat, with your back so close to the wall ?").
A game is being played here, and the moves are actually quite fun -- the American's instincts when the waiter first approaches aren't that far off, for example -- but the way Hamid relates the moves makes it less effective than it could and should be. In particular, the American's reactions fail to convince. With only Changez's reactions to the American's reactions and words revealed, the latter never becomes a very convincing figure -- and the situation he allows himself to find himself in (including listening to this guy for hours and hours on end) doesn't seem entirely plausible.
Readers may be meant to be led to believe that the conversation over tea and dinner is merely a framing device, and that the true heart of the novel is the life-story Changez recounts, but that narrative is interrupted too often (and the clues that something else is going on spread too thick) for that to seem convincing. More likely, of course, Changez's life-story holds clues to what brings these two men together here for what is surely meant to be a fateful encounter, and, yes, Hamid pulls that off to some extent -- but again not quite well enough.
The title of the book has a double meaning. The bearded Pakistani walking up to the American on the first page might suggest that this is, indeed, a novel about a man who is an Islamic fundamentalist, but that idea is dispelled -- or at least suspended -- very quickly; in fact, it first means something very different.
Born and raised in Pakistan, Changez was admitted to Princeton -- where he was one of only two Pakistanis in his class. He did exceptionally well there -- "I reached my senior year without having received a single B" -- and was hired by a prestigious valuation-firm (who figure out "how much businesses were worth" for their clients), Underwood Samson & Company. The man who hires him is also something like a mentor: Jim is an American who rose from poor circumstances to become a very successful man, and he sees a similar hunger in Changez -- though Changez doesn't think they are that similar. The fundamental motivation is slightly different:
I did not grow up in poverty. But I did grow up with a poor boy's sense of longing, in my case not for what my family never had, but for what we had had and lost. Some of my memories held onto imagined memories the way homeless people hold onto lottery tickets. Nostalgia was their crack cocaine, if you will, and my childhood was littered with the consequences of their addiction: unserviceable debts, squabbles over inheritances, the odd alcoholic or suicide. In this, Jim and I were indeed similar: he had grown up outside the candy store, and I had grown up on its threshold as its door was being shut.Both Changez's father and his grandfather attended university in England, but Pakistani circumstances -- even without any family-specific catastrophe -- left them (like, Changez makes it sound, the entire population) inexorably downwardly mobile:
So my grandfather could not afford what his father could, and my father could not afford what his father couldThrough hard work, first at his studies and then at his job, Changez looks to escape this vicious circle. True, he can only do so by taking a job in the US, but the strict meritocracy at Underwood Samson would seem to be the perfect place for him to thrive.
He does excel at his job -- for a while. The come the attacks on the World Trade Center in September of 2001, which he sees on TV while on assignment in Manila. He realises that his first reaction -- "And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased " -- is a telling one. He can't even explain it to himself, not then, but when he returns to a changed country, where suddenly his appearance and origin mark him as someone further outside the fold, he begins to have more doubts about the American dream (or illusion).
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a catchy title, but the more appropriate one might have been 'Nostalgia', because that is what Changez diagnoses all around him. Even as his name echoes 'changes', everything, everywhere is drawn back to the good old days (even when they weren't so good). With this realisation comes what is perhaps his biggest disappointment:
it seemed to me that America, too, was increasingly giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia at that time. There was something undeniably retro about the flags and uniforms, about generals addressing cameras in war rooms and newspaper headlines featuring such words as duty and honor. I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back.Changez, too, can't overcome nostalgia. Some of that is innocent enough: the pleasure of living in truly cosmopolitan New York, where one can find Urdu conversation and Pakistani food. But there's more, too. Even as Changez seems willing to create a new life for himself in New York he falls in love with a girl who also clings hopelessly to the past. The relationship that develops is a close one, but that which Changez wants is unattainable. Even though she knows that what is past is past, Erica can't let go of what has been lost, leaving her physically ill and psychologically irreparably damaged. Changez even suggests play-acting, pretending that nothing has changed for Erica (though putting himself in an entirely new role); it allows for intimacy, and a glimpse of what Changez is after, but it is built on a lie and proves more destructive than living the truth had been.
Every time he thinks about Erica -- and he does, a lot --, every time he sees Americans' reactions to "9/11", every time he thinks of his family's slow decline, Changez should realise that nostalgia is a cancer. It rots; it kills.
If there is any island free of nostalgia it is Underwood Samson. Meritocracy does rule, and as long as Changez does his job there is a place for him there. But Changez questions what they do, too. It can seem harsh:
Focus on the fundamentals. This was Underwood Samson's guiding principle, drilled into us since the first day at work. It mandated single-minded attention to financial detail, teasing out the true nature of those drivers that determine an asset's value.For a while Changez does that very well, able to ignore the fate of the workers who are made redundant and the lives he affects in other ways. But after the attack on the World Trade Center he begins to see things differently, and finds himself to be a more ... reluctant fundamentalist.
The situation in Pakistan, with America setting out to attack Afghanistan in retaliation against the Taliban, and the tensions between India and Pakistan rising to dangerous heights, obviously also affects him. Indeed, he resents American attitudes -- both on the smaller, inter-personal scale, as well as on the global stage -- more and more. Even as there are some who reach out to him -- even when Jim fires him he extends a hand in friendship, too -- Changez finds he can no longer be part of this establishment. He essentially saws off the branch on which he is sitting, assuring that he will have no other options. The pull of nostalgia proves too powerful for him, as well: he winds up back in Pakistan.
Since returning Changez has become a popular university lecturer; he has also become politically active: "I made it my mission on campus to advocate a disengagement from your country by mine". Admirably, Hamid almost completely avoids any religious implications: Changez's opposition is not primarily rooted in that, and whatever reluctant sort of fundamentalist he may be, it does not appear that he is a religious one.
The statement that may get the most attention in the book is Changez's admission that he smiled upon watching the World Trade Centers collapse, but he knew well enough to hide that feeling at that time. Far more consequential is a very public statement, for the cameras of the international news:
I stated to them among other things that no country inflicts death so readily upon the inhabitants of other countries, frightens so many people so far away, as America. I was perhaps more forceful on this topic than I intended.Hamid, of course, can't leave well enough alone and has to have Changez over-explain even the significance of this:
Such was its impact that I was warned by my comrades that America might react to my admittedly intemperate remarks by sending an emissary to intimidate me or worse.etc.
Throughout the novel one has the uneasy feeling that, on some level, someone here is facing their judge and executioner; where Hamid does succeed fairly well is in not making it entirely clear which of the two (almost-)conversation partners is doing the judging. After all, while Changez is doing most of the talking, his speech is both confession and indictment.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist reduces the geo-political to the individual and personal. Changez finds changes are too much, the price too great. He withdraws: instead of an America-like role of imposing change (as he had in his valuation-job) he wants an end to such interference from outside. He believes America's pursuit of its single-minded goal -- dressed up as self-preservation, but far more far-reaching -- has terrible consequences, and he must do what he can to oppose it:
As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my familyAmong Changez's first words to the American were the claim: "I am a lover of America", but as his story progresses it becomes ominously clear that he was not being entirely forthright. But then throughout his speech isn't really forthright, something that even the American must have figured out early on .....
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a frustratingly almost-good novel in a variety of ways. Hamid has some very good ideas here, and a decent touch with a lot of them as well, but much of what he does also undermines his various ambitions. The faceless American, in particular, is an annoying non-figure: omnipresent, he is obviously important, but Hamid's coy presentation leaves him far more of a cipher than he should be. Changez, too, is an odd figure: true, he even goes so far as to emphasise that he was very young when much of this happened -- just out of college -- but he doesn't always convince as the very smart, very well-educated man he is supposed to be. Hamid also tries to have it every different way -- even suggesting, late into book, that maybe Changez isn't such a reliable narrator .....
Hamid rams home several of the messages too hard -- certainly the nostalgic theme is beaten to a very visible pulp -- and is surprisingly obvious with far too many of what should be the novel's subtler points and examples. Some of the action -- Erica's obsession, Hamid's irresponsibility at work -- is also not entirely convincing, at least in how it is presented. Indeed, the book feels very structured -- the sort of text one would use in a high school English class, where even 10th graders could see and point out what Hamid was doing, and how he was doing it. But The Reluctant Fundamentalist isn't straight out of Writing 101, either; there is a bit more to it. Just not enough.
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Mohsin Hamid was born in Pakistan in 1971. He attended Princeton and Harvard, and now lives in England.
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