Monday, August 13, 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Mr Hamid was a speaker at this year's Sydney Writer's Festival, back in June. He is of Pakistani origins, but lives in the UK, and tells a great story against himself. For example, he was trying to enter the United States; being dark-skinned and heavily bearded attracted a certain amount of attention from the authorities. They ask what he does: "I'm an author." "Of what?" "Well, it is about this Pakistani Moslem, he's talking to an American in Lahore, after September 11." "And what is it called?" "Erm, The Reluctant Fundamentalist." "Come with us, sir. Now."

He uses an interesting technique: the only voice is that of the narrator. It gives a freshness and simplicity to the story. Through this monologue, he tells his life story while at the same time navigates with the American through the streets of Lahore. Every so often he responds to things the American says, his facial expressions and things they see as they walk.

The narrator could be one of the many "helpful" souls we encounter when we travel; the novel starts:
Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America. I noticed that you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services.
Unlike most I have encountered who offer their services, Changez does not appear to be after anything, is genuinely wanting to help this American, although perhaps at the cost of having to listen to him talk near non-stop for what must have been half a day (the book is 184 pages of his non-stop talking). Changez is among the best Pakistan has to offer: he gets a scholarship to Princeton and excels there. "In return, we were expected to contribute our talents to your society, the society we were joining. And, for the most part, we were happy to do so. I certainly was, at least at first."

He joins a prestigious management consultancy, where his job is to place a value on takeover targets. He is very good at it, too. For a while he is pleased at his own sense of accomplishment, at the nice salary his job generates, at his access to expense accounts, at meeting and winning Erica. But he can't help but remember, and start to resent, the fact that while America might be the most technologically advanced nation on earth, those in India and Pakistan had had it all four thousand years earlier, when "the ancestors of those who would invade and colonise America were illiterate barbarians".

The seeds of his discontent were sown quite early: he is in the Philippines on his first valuation project, when he turns the TV on to see what he thought was a movie:
But as I continued to watch, I realized it was not fiction but news. I stared as one - and then the other - of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased... I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.
He has trouble articulating quite why he feels this way, but when he returns to the USA and is treated as suspicious, both by officialdom and his fellow passengers, it is the beginning of the end of his time in the USA. The other major factor is Erica: she fades away, is still caught up with mixed love and grief for her deceased first love. As his relationship with her crumbles away, so too does his relationship with America. Both were giving way to a "dangerous nostalgia", leaving no place for him. The US led bombing of the Taliban was the end:
My reaction caught me by surprise; Afghanistan was Pakistan's neighbour, our friend, and a fellow Muslim nation besides, and the sight of what I took to be the beginning of its invasion by your countrymen caused me to tremble with fury.
He gets caught up in his own nostalgia, for his homeland: when there are troubles between Pakistan and India, he sees it as imperative that he go home, and despite the trouble it will cause him, grows a beard; the point being that this is all it takes to be branded trouble. We know that he is a smart, kind person yet that does not matter. Having said that, it would indeed be difficult to reconcile him being such a person with his staying in America: September 11 forced a taking of sides.



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