on July 27, 2007
In a recent article in The Washington Post" (7.22.07) titled "ROOTS OF RAGE: "Why Do They Hate Us?", Mohsin Hamid writes about an encounter at a book signing in Texas for "The Reluctant Fundamentalist." He was stopped cold when a man asked the subtitle question in a politely pleasant manner that put both author and reader in the "us" category. Hamid notes that he had spent almost half his life in the United States: emigrating from Lahore, Pakistan at the age of three with his father (who was accepted to a PhD program at Stanford), learning to sing "The Star Spangled Banner" before the Pakistan national anthem, playing baseball before cricket, writing English before Urdu, and other activities of a typical American kid. The question cut to the quick because in many ways he is, or it seems should be, one of us.
The Post piece goes on to lay out an autobiography which in considerable part became the plot of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist." Hamid returned to Lahore at the age of nine, growing up there pleasurably before the city was adversely impacted economically and culturally (strict morality codes, intimidation of politicians, academics, and journalists) by American backing of Pakistan's dictator Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in exchange for Zia's support of the mujaheddin, the Afghan guerrilla group fighting the Russian occupation which later became an American holy war adversary. Like the character Changez in the novel, he returned to the United States to attend Princeton University.
How much of the remainder of the book (Changez's outstanding performance in a business evaluation firm prior to being fired in debilitating disenchantment when he recognized the havoc his work was causing in the global workplace, the American girlfriend who ultimately fails him, et cetera) is unknown. But there is enough to support the notion that fiction, well written, can often articulate more basic truth than nonfiction. And "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is brilliantly and beautifully written. There is no action (no bombs, no bullets, no noisy chaos) but there is suspense, gripping suspense (the feeling that something rather awful may happen at any moment), as Changez spends an evening over dinner telling his story to an American at a restaurant at a disquieting Lahore market. We never know the American's name or anything about him (whether businessman, tourist,, government agent)) except for his excruciating fear in the exotic foreign setting in which he finds himself. All this is conveyed through the narrative voice of Changez interpreting the American's reaction as the story unfolds.
The unnamed American is a stand-in, the nervous visitor in a strange foreign land, for all of us as we ponder the ghosts and goblins of the war on terror. Uneasy and watchful in that eerie marketplace, he could be any one of us anywhere. The girl with whom Changez falls in love is also, in a sense, a prototype for an America that cannot give up the memory of a dead lover (our nostalgia for the innocent security of a time that is past) and accept Changez for what he is: a smart, well-educated, if culturally different, Muslim foreigner who longs for acceptance.
In the Post article, Hamid answers the question of why they hate us as part envy and part reaction to American foreign policy. But his answer is less convincing that the one he offers to a reverse question, Why Do They Love Us?: "People abroad admire Americans not because they back foreign dictators but because they believe that all men and all women are created equal. That concept does not stop at the borders of the United States. . . .
"The challenge that the United States faces today boils down to a choice. It can insist on its primacy as a superpower, or it can accept the primacy of its values. If it chooses the former, it will heighten the resentment of foreigners and increase the likelihood of visiting disasters upon distant populations -- and vice versa. If it chooses the latter, it will discover something it appears to have forgotten: that the world is full of potential allies."
Readers of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" will experience, at least for a few hours, some of the feelings of others across the world who are observing our fears and anxieties as we weigh the crucial choices which lie ahead. It could be time well spent.
on July 11, 2007
By now, you what the book is about. And you've heard the disagreements - fundamentalist, not so; controversial, innocuous; hate mail, balanced viewpoint; etc., etc. It seems like there is little left to say. But let me try and present some different perspectives on the book - things I see less talked about but which I believe are crucial to its understanding, interpretation, and appreciation.
So, let me start by stating the two key themes I am not going to be discussing: the sort of "coming-of-age" and maturing of an individual as a consequence of the social and political events around him, and the analysis of the transition that a society goes through as exemplified by the impact of some dramatic events on an individual or a family. I think both these themes are played out in this book, and played out very well like almost everything else in it, but they are still secondary themes. The real objective of the book I believe is to showcase the entire generation of "reluctant fundamentalists" that have spawned among Generations X&Y across the globe (primarily as a result of the huge economic disparities between the developed and developing nations, but that's an altogether separate debate and something I won't go into further here). These fundamentalists are not born so, they are not trained to be so, they often feel ashamed to be so, and are quintessentially not so, but nonetheless, when cornered, they become so as a natural outcome of some primal human behavioural traits like love for one's own and protecting of one's territory. These are the circumstantial fundamentalists. Changez is just one such man, and the dichotomy playing out in the minds of these reluctant fundamentalists is demonstrated in an excellent fashion through his actions in this book. Till he is cornered (metaphorically, when 9/11 takes place), he displays no fundamentalist tendencies. But once he is, some primal emotions surface. Thereafter, he and those around him get into a vicious cycle, as a result of which he keeps getting pushed back more and more, and like most people, does not know how to respond except by becoming defensive, by retreating into familiar territory, and sometimes by lashing out in unjustifiable ways. Does he regret some of his reactions - absolutely, for he knows that some of them represent something inhumane and cannot be justified by any measures of morality. And that is the dilemma of the reluctant fundamentalist - the battle between the greater good and the smaller but more personal concerns. That is the dilemma every one of us is likely to face at some point in our life - protecting what is near and dear to us, or protecting what is right. That is the dilemma that Mohsin Hamid is trying to lay bare, and I think he does it fantastically.
There are two other aspects of the book which I'd like to briefly touch upon: the very interesting relationship between Changez and Erica, and also Erica's downward mental spiral. These are not key themes in the book, and to be honest, I don't believe are essential to the narrative of the book, but are still very well detailed and beautiful sub-stories in themselves which could have become good fodder for another book. These stories are really Erica's, as she gradually, not suddenly, loses her ability to deal with her dead lover, and how that loss affects her present relationships, especially with Changez. I thought this narrative was startling and beautiful, despite its inevitable tragic end.
In conclusion, I'd like to strongly recommend this book to all those readers who are trying to get some incisive and powerful insight into the minds of the quasi-fundamentalist behaviour being shown by many today. This book is not going to solve the culture-, religion-, or class-based clashes in the world today, but if it can help even a few people understand each other better, which I believe it will be able to, then it's a very worthwhile addition to the annals of literature.
on August 12, 2007
Rarely will I describe a book as beautiful. Yet I cannot think of a more befitting descriptive for Mohsin Hamid's THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST.
The story centers around a meeting at an outdoor café in Lahore between a Pakistani man named Changez and a suspicious-looking American with the bearing that makes him out to be either military or intelligence agent. Changez engages the man initially in tea and conversation. After awhile, seeing the American most attentive --and also a bit wary of his surroundings, the Pakistani orders dinner for the two of them; meanwhile going deeper into his memories about times spent in America, as a student at Princeton and later as a rising star at a New York valuation firm. Changez also recollects his budding romance with Erica, the daughter of a wealthy investment banker who was sure to enable Changez's entry to high society. Changez was well on his way to success when the twin towers of the World Trade Center came tumbling down on September 11, 2001.
Changez's reaction to their collapse alarms and confuses him; he finds himself smiling and overjoyed. The elation, however, isn't over the deaths of 3,000 innocent people, but rather thet there are those who are able to strike at the United States --an entity which has long held him in awe with its almost limitless power, wealth and ability to affect the world: sometimes for the best, sometimes for the worst. As America becomes enraged and seeks revenge upon anything and anyone Muslim, he reads reports of Pakistan becoming coerced into the war against Afghanistan and of India taking advantage of this situation threatening his homeland. Becoming ever more distanced from our society and his work, it becomes increasingly harder for Changez to continue at his career. A job which he now sees as dependent upon the expense and suffering of others. Making matters worse, Erica, the one person who perhaps could have kept him grounded and focused, suffers a mental relapse over the shock of 9/11. Erica slips back into the debilitating state she suffered over the death of her longtime childhood friend and lover, Chris, two years earlier. Eventually Changez returns to Pakistan. Changez today is a different man from the ambitious and obedient corporate cog he described living back in New York. Yet as he speaks to the American about his country's indifference to the rest of the world, about America's unconcern for the expense her wars of revenge are costing others, he still he cannot hide his love for America. However, it is no longer the romanticizing love of an infatuated innocent, instead it is the love one has for another depite all the other's faults and abuses. A love reluctant, but love nonetheless.
The monologue telling of this story is beguiling. Changez holds the reader spellbound as he keeps the unidentified American man's interest for hours. Mohsin Hamid's gift for words and symbolism, and the intricacies he creates with them, is astounding. Admittedly, some of Changez actions and statements will repel many of us American readers (his gleeful response to the jets slamming into the Twin Towers certainly did it to me). Keep in mind, however, that this is a voice which exists amongst millions of those out there, from Totonto and London, to Pakistan and Indonesia. It is a voice we have been told to ignore, but it still won't go away. That's because it is not only the voice of the popeyed rageboys constantly being shown in our media, but also the voice of men like Changez, who tried making sense of America's dichotomies, but can no longer struggle to reconcile the willful ignorance and arrogant indifference that exists within our nation's beauty and spirit. So, we may call them "fundamentalists," but we must start to recognize that many are reluctant to be such. They have the rageboys, but we have the coldly calculating geopolitical experts, who smile and assure us of our "national interests." Changes must come from all of us.
On first glance, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" by Mohsin Hamid appears to be about a brilliant young Pakistani national named Changez who finishes at the top of his class at Princeton and is hired by Underwood Samson, the most prestigious and world-famous corporate valuation firm based in New York City. We are encouraged by the title and the dark overtones of the dramatic monologue in which the book is narrated, to believe that somehow, by the end of the novel, Changez turns into a Muslim fundamentalist and implied terrorist. Wow, now that is a theme that really hits a bull's-eye with the American psyche!
Most Americans are sincerely confused by what is happening in the world today. We see rampant anti-Americanism, frightening Islamic terrorism, news of successful professionals being recruited into the ranks of the terrorists, and we can't imagine why. We hope to get inside the head of one of these characters and see the world from their point of view--perhaps finally understand what drives them to these drastic ends.
The book delivers on these issues and much more--very clever indeed! The monologue is narrated with spare, well-crafted prose that is often old-fashioned--and disconcerting. The archaic prose casts the story in a shroud of strangeness elevating the suspense and making the whole an unequivocal, unrelenting page-turner.
There is a marvelous linguistic and thematic trick built into that word "fundamentalist" used in the title and the text of the book. In the entire novel, religion is never once mentioned. Fundamentalism, in the context of terrorism, always refers to religious fundamentalism. But this book is not about a budding Muslim fundamentalist. So what type of fundamentalist is this, and why is he reluctant?
This is about a man fighting two inner battles: one moral and one political. In the beginning of his skyrocketing American dream career, Changez is temporarily blinded to one of his most ingrained core moral values: compassion. He comes from a family and a culture where people, no matter how poor, routinely celebrate their greatest joys by giving generously to the poor. When Changez comes home to Pakistan for a brief visit with his family, his mother dances ecstatically twirling a 100-rupee note over her head. What a wonderful image! Now, ask yourself how we in the West celebrate our greatest achievements and joys, and let this, and the other similar nuggets of open, cross-cultural insights peppered throughout this work, ignite your thinking about contemporary world issues!
In the beginning, Changez feels stirrings of compassion for the "soon-to-be-redundant workers" (p. 99) that will, no doubt, fall victim to his brilliantly accurate valuation analyses. Sensing this, Jim, Changez' corporate mentor at Underwood Samson, coaches him often to "focus on the fundamentals"--the bottom line, the numbers, don't let emotion or compassion get in the way. However, by the time the book draws to a close--when Changez is in Valparaiso, Chile helping valuate a troubled book publishing firm that spends too much of its assets publishing worthy academic, literary, and poetic books that eventually end up losing money for the firm--here Changez becomes the reluctant fundamentalist of the book's title. He can no longer focus only on the bottom line. He can no longer ignore the deep core of compassion that is his personal moral compass.
So, does he also become a fundamentalist terrorist? The author leaves that up to you to decide. The ending is deftly and provokingly ambiguous. But no matter which ending you choose to imagine--and you will vacillate--the overall cross-cultural thematic points have already been made, and that is what is important and what endures long after you've finished the book.
There is also the inner political battle that Changez undergoes during the course of the novel. He begins his job at Underwood Samson a few months before 9/11. How he reacts to that news, and how America changes in the wake of that news--both form crucial themes that resonate throughout. In many ways the book is about the dangers of not embracing change. The author and the main character find much fault with America's fundamental backwards-looking reaction after 9/11. Instead of trying to come to terms with how America must fundamentally change in the new post-9/11 world order, Changez sees Americans retreating back to an old-fashioned nostalgia for America, the righteous superpower, the imperialistic dominator of the globe. To Changez, America's self-righteous nostalgia is a terminal illness. To mirror this theme, there is lovely parallel story of Changez' love for the mentally fragile Erica. She fails precisely because she cannot free herself from her nostalgia for her dead former lover. She cannot move forward with her life, despite the fact that the reader can see very clearly that Changez and Erica have the makings of a truly enduring love.
So if America is failing to change, and Erica fails to change, what happens to Changez? He changes (change-ez)! [Is this, too, along with the word "fundamentalist," perhaps another linguistic thematic pun?] We the reader are left to figure out if the main character's change is for the better, or not. Thus the ambiguous ending leaves us wondering.
This novel is so clever! It really makes you think. It entertains with suspense as well as giving you an achingly beautiful love story--and underlying all is much to be learned about the current state of the world.
I recommend this book highly, as I also do one of the other top contenders for the 2007 Booker Prize, namely Ian McEwen's "On Chesil Beach." (I've also reviewed this book here on Amazon.) Personally, I hope Hamid's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" will win. I believe it clearly deserves it.
on May 12, 2007
Changez presents an interesting perspective of life in America in the aftermath of 9/11 but ultimately fails to deliver because ofhis overly superficial treatment of complex issues. He disappoints with some unsupported statements such as that he took secret pleasure in the terrorism that claimed 3,000+ lives but gives the reader no reason, up to that point, why this should have pleased him. Changez experienced a first class university, acceptance by and recognition from his peers, and an enviable professional opportunity. He then expresses outrage at the US "invasion" of Afghanistan without an attempt to connect the dots. He prides himself on his education and his enlightened background but he ignores the presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a brutal and oppressive regime that kept women in ignorance, most of the country in abject poverty and provided training grounds for terrorists. I would expect a more nuanced perspective from a Princeton educated observer. Again, his infatuation with Erica was cliche driven - the unattainable golden girl from Park Avenue. This reader failed to feel his passion or the true nature of his involvement.
on January 19, 2008
I love the narration of this novel, the escalating tension, the way the author manages to convey the character of the nameless and faceless American listener in the cafe. The story is also compelling and the novel raises questions that we should at least think about, even if we don't find them comfortable or agree with the actions or viewpoints of the character Changez.
Some of the other reviews here have been excessively harsh. I personally did not think Changez is a religious "fundamentalist"--nowhere in the text does he reveal a belief in Islamic fundamentalism. He isn't even a religious character. Ironically, the primary times when "fundamental" appears is with respect to the "fundamentals first" approach of the ruthless Wall Street firm where Changez works--reluctantly. So I understood the book's title to refer to Changez' growing reluctance to be a part of the capitalist machinery. Where does he become a Muslim fundamentalist? He doesn't. Some reviewers also need to remember that Changez is a fictional character, not an actual guy--and please don't confuse the fictional narrator with the author.
That being said, some of the reviews give excessive praise. It does seem to me that if part of the author's goal is to provide insight into the perspective of the immigrant or sympathy for the immigrant's divided loyalties, the book fails by actually *perpetuating* stereotypes rather than challenging them. The writing itself is so strong and captivating that not until I completed the book did I realize how thin and stereotypical Changez turns out to be. There just isn't a lot of insight here. Changez finally comes across as shallow, superficial, self-absorbed, and entitled (in short, all the things he criticizes in American society).
I also felt perturbed by the fact that Changez' perceptions of America are gleaned solely from his interactions at the highest echelon of society. The corner of America in which he functions is indeed ruthless and elitist--towards the majority of our own citizens as well. But the upper-crust Ivy League aspect of America is not the whole country, and Changez draws his conclusions about America based on his interactions with a very small portion of it.
In the end, Hamid posits an excessively simplistic binary opposition that fails to satisfy. Hamid is a brilliant writer and has developed an effective literary device, but in the long run I found myself too disturbed to continue identifying with Changez, and disappointed that crucial opportunities for insights into cross-cultural conflicts were lost. I finished the book with the fear that such a simplistic approach will do more harm than good when it comes to promoting understanding, tolerance, and peace.
Like Kazuo Ishiguro's brilliant NEVER LET ME GO, this fantastic novel is one that you should finish before reading reviews since knowing too much of the plot will spoil this story for you. Also set aside enough time to finish THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST in one sitting for you will not be be able to put it down. I was hooked by page 4--the novel is slim, consisting of 184 pages but it is too rich and intense to be much longer-- when the narrator describes Princeton University as raising her skirt "for the corporate recruiters who came onto campus and--as you say in America--showed them some skin." About that narrator-- he is a Pakistani named Changez who is now 25 years old who is telling his story to an unnamed nervous American as they have a meal at a cafe in Lahore ("there is no need to reach under your jacket, I assume to grasp your wallet"). Educated at Princeton and the recipient of financial aid, he accepted a position at the high-powered financial firm of Underwood Samson immediately out of college and worked tirelessly, always achieving more than his elite American co-workers. He also fell in love with the beautiful but sad American Erica. He was in Manilla on assignment on that ignominious day of September 11 when his world, and those of many others, changed. Enough of the plot. Changez' extended dramatic monologue will affect you in many different ways. You will be at once sympathetic to this complex character but repelled by him.
Mr. Hamid's richly nuanced novel will keep you reading as the tension builds. He asks difficult questions that many of us would choose to avoid, specifically about the perception of the United States in the Middle East and other parts of the world as well and the reasons why we are hated so. In Changez he has created a character that you will not soon forget. The title of the novel speaks multitudes.
This is probably the only novel of its kind, a novel with no lyrical descriptions of people and places. It has no dialogue at all; in fact, the entire novel is a long, gripping monologue.
A novel in the form of a monologue and without a dialogue is a brilliant and novel idea, and it works magnificently in this case only because Mohsin Hamid is a superb writer with formidable prowess. He grips the reader's mind with polished and haunting prose.
The hero of the novel, Changez, a student from Lahore, Pakistan, attends Princeton University. After graduation at the top in his class, he secures an excellent and well-paying job at the elite valuation firm Underwood Samson. He becomes well-adjusted and well-accustomed to the American way of life, falls in love with the beautiful and elegant, Princeton-educated Erica, who hails from an aristocratic family. For the first time in his life Changez is happy. Then, unexpectedly, on September 11, 2001, two planes crash into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. As a result, the towers collapse. And along with the towers, Changez's personal world also collapses. When the terrorists are identified as Muslims from Saudi Arabia, and people, anchormen, and the media speculate about the reasons for the attack, Changez finds himself questioning the injustices perpetrated by America abroad. His priorities in life change, and he neglects his job. And as a result he loses his job. He returns to Lahore, where at a market in the district of Old Anarkali, he meets an American stranger. The novel is narrated as a monologue addressed to this stranger.
Read what Changez says to the stranger about Princeton University: "Every fall, Princeton raised her skirt for the corporate recruiters who came onto campus and-as you say in America-showed them some skin. The skin Princeton showed was good skin, of course-young, eloquent, and clever as can be-but even among all that skin, I knew in my senior year that I was something special. I was a perfect breast, if you will-tan, succulent, seemingly defiant of gravity-and I was confident of getting any job I wanted."
A few readers have felt that the ending of the novel, though stunning, was all too sudden. But the author has explained in interviews that the ending was intentional. "It was always intended to end as it does. For me, the reader is a character in a novel, and the way one reads it shapes the outcome. So a reader who is more suspicious of Pakistanis might read it differently from one who is more suspicious of Americans. But it is the fear we are all being fed, the sense that something menacing lurks in the shadows of our world, that has the potential to make the novel a thriller," he has said.
Because the events in the novel occur in the shadow of the fall of the Twin Towers, and the novel is written from the perspective of a typical Muslim's mind, and a Muslim from Pakistan, the book has generated a minor storm of controversy. But most of the professional reviewers, and major magazines such as Time, and newspapers such as the NYT, The Guardian, and even the Publishers Weekly and the acerbic Kirkus Review, to name a few, have been fair and kind to the author, and all have written glowing reviews.
I found the novel riveting. Using words smooth as pebbles in a riverbed, the author has produced a novel with a thousand sharp edges. The wounds inflicted by the incidents on September 11, 2001, on Americans' minds, have not yet healed. The author has touched the living scabs of the wounds, rekindling the pain. This novel will make you think about our prejudices and preconceived ideas and it will prompt you to look deep within yourself also, and to ponder about our world which has changed so drastically, almost overnight. It's a masterful feat befitting a great writer. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Mohsin Hamid is an impressive master of English prose.
Reading this novel will leave you spell bound, and it will also literally take your breath away.
on August 30, 2008
I am not shy about criticizing US foreign policy and our nation's hubris. There are many legitimate reasons to dislike the US government. This book is based on none of them. In contrast to millions of people around the world, the protagonist was issued a visa to come to the US, attended one of the top colleges in the US and was selected over hundreds of applicants for a plum US job with a high salary. He is surrounded by people who like him, look out for him and care for him. Yet when the 9/11 attacks happen, he smiles and is pleased. Why? He doesn't really say - it appears to be based on his personal, cultural identity crisis and a reference to American belligerence (which, though true, is not tied in personally to the protagonist at all). He seethes with anger when the US attacks the Taliban in Afghanistan. He apparently but inexplicably sympathizes with his murderous, iron-fisted, women-hating neighbors. This book seems to have been written in a hurry, the author neglecting to provide any legitimate foundation for the protagonist's antipathy to the US. Certainly it could have been done and the reader is truly left wondering why the author chose to omit history in favor of assuming that the reader would agree the protagonist's feelings were justified. It is particularly confusing when told from the viewpoint of a well-educated, supposedly intellectual man who should have seen that hard diplomacy is a much sharper weapon than violence.
I found the author's writing style (the protagonist speaking to a man with no voice and no apparent reason to be there other than as an excuse to poke more fun at Americans) annoying and disruptive of what little flow the book had. Another stylistic tool - the dash! - is ubiquitous and entirely distracting. Truly, this book could have been so much more had the author put more time (and perhaps research) into it. It could have been a bridge to explain to a mass audience Muslims' frustration with America. It utterly fails in this regard and in the end I fear it will only be used as fuel by those who believe that Islam is a violent faith.
on September 10, 2007
The language in this novella is fluid; it is a short piece (framed as a tale told over a dinner) that pulls in the reader. The narrator (Changez) spins his story of his initial embrace and ultimate rejection of the upwardly mobile existence of a Pakistani-born Princeton alum living in corporate America post-9/11. The book tries to answer big questions about why America both attracts and repels the alien observer in the early 21st century. It disappoints. The novel surfs instead of diving deep into motivations and milieu. The characters surrounding the narrator (a sad beautiful WASP love interest, a workplace mentor) are drawn sketchily. Is it because these Americans are ultimately unfathomable to Changez? Perhaps, but the characterization of the narrator, and his transformation, also remains oddly unspecific. There is a lack of detailed descriptions of either New York after 9/11 (which had a distinct feel) or Lahore. Changez watches Afghanistan being bombed, and tensions rising in South Asia, and he increasingly finds himself questioning his role in his adopted country. His disillusionment seems reasonable enough (we know from poll statistics the punishment that US image has taken globally in the last 6 years), but Hamid does not offer probing insight to the issue. The book would be strengthened by more particulars about the situation and attitudes of South Asian and Muslim immigrants to the US. Changez's transformation and radicalization comes so quickly. The novel's conclusion offers an intriguing ambiguity.