The Reluctant Fundamentalist
A deeply provocative, excellent addition to the burgeoning sub-genre of September 11 novels.
At a cafe table in an old quarter of Lahore a young bearded Muslim man named Changez buttonholes a stranger who is an American (neither his complexion nor his clothes but rather his "bearing" makes this clear) and begins to tell him a fascinating story. This is the starting point of Mohsin Hamid's spare, taut second novel.
As Changez - solicitous, conciliatory, defiant, distant, ironical and patronising in turns - continues, it becomes clear that this is a story of love gone wrong: the love between a young Pakistani immigrant and his vision of the American dream.
When evening falls and darkens into night, Changez tells how he entered Princeton ("I was one of only two Pakistanis in my entering class - two from a population of over 100 million souls, mind you") and then, through his talent, hard work and resolve, did extremely well at college and managed to be recruited by an elite company called Underwood Samson, which values other companies and sets down terms for takeovers.
It is a prestigious job and comes with generous rewards. He falls in love with Erica, a beautiful, intelligent daughter of wealthy parents and through her, gains access to the creamy layers of New York society. Changez soon finds himself living the kind of life he could only have dreamt of in Lahore, in his once-grand, now slightly crumbling, house with a family whose wealth has dwindled much more rapidly than its status.
Then come the attacks of September 11, 2001. Changez watches them on TV in a hotel room in Manila (where he is on assignment) and has a curious reaction: "And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased."
This reaction is the turning point of the novel. Two things follow: Changez begins his introspection about America's hegemony and power and the manner in which it throws its not inconsiderable weight around; and the city he had embraced with such joy only a few months before begins to view him with mistrust and suspicion as the public mood and climate change.
Changez's life begins to unravel quickly. Erica slips away from him, is confined to a mental asylum and eventually disappears. He is fired from his job. He returns to Lahore, bitter and disillusioned about the United States, and begins to teach at a university.
His exposition of US behaviour in its grief-crazed, wounded state offers a sort of coda to this novel. "As a society, 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 ... Such an America had to be stopped in the interests not only of the rest of humanity but also in your own."
Changez does not let on exactly what he does to "stop America" once he is back in Pakistan though he admits that is his mission. Hamid keeps the ending of the novel open and faintly ominous. It is hard to tell how reliable a narrator Changez is, as The Reluctant Fundamentalist proceeds by suppressions and elisions, and what Hamid leaves out is just as crucial as what he lets Changez tell us.
This is a deeply provocative, excellent addition to the burgeoning sub-genre of September 11 novels. But it would be an understatement to call it merely that. Here is a novel rich in irony and intelligence. Hamid shows us the post-September 11 world from another angle. In doing so he offers up a mirror to the complex business of East-West encounters in these troubled times.
This review first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007