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The Reluctant Fundamentalist Paperback – April 14, 2008
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An Amazon Book with Buzz: "Sweet Sorrow" by David Nicholls
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PRAISE FOR THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST
From the Inside Flap
Changez is living an immigrant’s dream of America. At the top of his class at Princeton, he is snapped up by the elite valuation firm of Underwood Samson. He thrives on the energy of New York, and his budding romance with elegant, beautiful Erica promises entry into Manhattan society at the same exalted level once occupied by his own family back in Lahore.
But in the wake of September 11, Changez finds his position in his adopted city suddenly overturned, and his relationship with Erica eclipsed by the reawakened ghosts of her past. And Changez’s own identity is in seismic shift as well, unearthing allegiances more fundamental than money, power, and maybe even love.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a riveting, brilliantly unsettling exploration of the shadowy, unexpected connections between the political and the personal.
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The novel has a semi autobiographical aspect to it. The protagonist is a Pakistani was educated at Princeton. Mohsin Hamid, the author, is a Pakistani educated at Princeton. I feel I have not read enough author's from Asia and intend to correct that. The novel itself is both unusual to my experience and very well written. There is suspense that slowly builds that I felt was the product of superior writing skills.
I read this book on Kindle while listening to the audiobook simultaneously. The narrator of the audiobook is Satya Bhabha. Up until the last few of Chapter 3 the audiobook was a perfect reproduction of this excellent novel. Mr. Bhabha's narration has been excellent and has added to the reading experience. However a significant part of the end of Chapter 3 is completely missing. It is an important part of the story and if one only listens to the audiobook one will miss it, I think without knowing it. It is approximately the last five paragraphs. One can still comprehend the story, if one only listens to the audiobook, but the reading experience is altered, and not for the better.
Similarly, the last two paragraphs of Chapter 9 are missing. The narration of this chapter ends at the end of a paragraph. Once again, I believe if one only listens to the audiobook, one will not be able to detect this. Once again, the story does not become incomprehensible, but is, I think, diminished.
I paid very little more for the Kindle and audiobook combination than I would have for just the audiobook and I am glad I did so. Thank You...
The main character, Changez, is a young Pakistani from a family that was once affluent but is now in decline. He receives a scholarship to Princeton where he graduates with all A's at the top of his class. He is promptly recruited by a top corporate valuations company, and in no time, is living a life he could not have imagined. He has a great job, a beautiful American girlfriend, and a non-stop social life. He is tall, handsome, well-dressed and well-liked. His boss takes him under his wing and it seems his future will be a brilliant one. And then the World Trade Center is attacked and Changez world view shifts.
I was quite startled by the author's naked openness about his feelings in this story. Changez is in the Philippines on business when the Towers are attacked and his first reaction is one of happiness. He is ashamed of himself for feeling that way and immediately regrets the loss of life but, at the same time, cannot help but approve of the symbolism. Yet, he is well-aware that America has given him so much--why would he feel the way he did?
Slowly Changez slips into decline--a decline that even he does not understand. He is deeply conflicted and divided inside between his gratitude to a country that has given him so much and the land of his birth that he feels loyal to.
During a business trip to Chile he begins to fall apart and, while visiting the home of poet Pablo Neruda, he makes a terrible decision.
This was not an easy book to read at times but the deep conflict and confusion Changez experiences is gripping. The author takes no shortcuts and avoids the trite and expected. The end was shattering. I am very glad to have read this book but believe it is not for everyone.
Take a look at Mohsin Hamid's resume and it will give you a hint on what's going on here. Born in Pakistan, lived in the states for a bit, returned to Pakistan, came back and went to Princeton for undergrad, harvard law school, took a job at a big time law firm, but decided it was too boring (per wikipedia). He's written for almost every respectable publication and was named one of the world's top 100 global thinkers by Foreign Policy Magazine. Somewhere in there he became a dual citizen: UK and Pakistan.
He absolutely kills it in this book (California slang for "does a really good job"). Here are the main parts I see in it:
1. He's in love with a woman who periodically stops responding to him. He thinks she is not interested, and maybe that is what it is, but he keeps racking his brain on what it is and tries different angles to reach her.
2. He is a Pakistani who lives and works in high profile america. He always feels like an outsider. Then 9/11 happens and he feels even more like an outsider.
3. His job is appraising companies and he does a good job of it, but in appraising Philipino and Chilean companies he realizes he is feeding the American engine that is disrupting the lives of many around the world. It may be a shock to Americans, but it is a very honest one, and I think it is really valid. I am an american who has lived in Mexico, Israel and now China with a lot of travel in between. Hamid contributes thinking that the west, but especially Americans desperately need to at least be aware of and likely, begin to adopt.
He struggles with that and with his family being in a place that is on the edge of war. He sees the effect the US's activity in Afghanistan is having and I think helps us to see it in an honest way.
After reading this book, I am excited to pick up his other works and delve into his thinking more. ... did I mention this book is short? 4 and a half hours on audio.
Top international reviews
The conversation is enigmatic. Changez is a delightful host, unfailingly polite and obliging to the suspicious, surly American, who, we infer, is clearly worried that this whole conversation is some kind of set up. Is he imagining these threats? Is he ruining a lovely meal with a charming man due to some kind of delusion?
These is much delusion in this book. We see characters who classify fundamentalism as an insane state of mind confined to a few crazy religious people who come from somewhere vaguely east. Changez’s story, however, makes it clear that there are all kinds of fundamentalism, ranging from the business philosophy of New York consultancy firms, to the idealised love affairs of vulnerable young women. Confining the idea of fundamentalism to one set of circumstances and people is a fundamental misunderstanding.
The result of this misunderstanding is a kind of paranoid delusion. Just as Changez’s American dining companion imagines an attentive waiter as a possible assassin, America itself became delusional about terrorism after 9/11. The 9/11 attacks led to the deaths of 2990 people, which it goes without saying was a terrible thing. From 2001 until 2013 there were a further 390 American deaths from terrorism, almost all of them overseas. This compares to 406,496 deaths from American firearms in the same period – according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the U.S. State Department. Deaths caused by Americans shooting themselves and each other, are 100 times greater than those resulting from terrorism. Yet it is the terrorist threat that Americans fear, while their own far more lethal guns and attitudes are expressions of “freedom”. The aim is always to find an outside threat, some other people to count as crazy fundamentalists. Changez tries to explain this to his guest:
“As a society… you retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority.”
This trend is only gathering force. CNN compiled the above comparison figures for terrorist and American gun related deaths in 2015. They did so at the encouragement of President Obama, following a gun attack at an Oregon college. In 2016, millions of Americans decided it was a good idea to replace President Obama with a man who is only interested in creating outside threats against which he can rage.
All of these delusions sit behind the fictional, enigmatic meal shared by Changez and his American guest. Is this a peaceful meal or an attempted assassination? If the American’s suspicions are misplaced, might those suspicions themselves result in real trouble? Similarly, Pakistani fears could themselves lead to a violent outcome. Is the American reaching into his pocket for a phone or a gun? Is it wise to wait and find out? This might only be fiction writing, but it's a good place to explore the dangerous power of fictions as they collide with the real world.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist reminds me how important books are. This book is even more significant now than it was when first published in 2007. Books challenge stagnant patterns of thought and open up different points of view. Perhaps that’s why totalitarian leaders don’t like them.
In a café in his native city of Lahore, some time after 9/11, a bearded 25-year-old Pakistani called Changez engages an American in talk, though we only read his side of the conversation, so it is in effect a monologue. We gather from it how the American responds. He seems nervous, probably regarding Changez as a dangerous Muslim fanatic. Changez tells him of his life.
He had had a scholarship to Princeton University, had graduated with distinction and had then been one of the select few who had been chosen to work for Underwood Samson, a prestigious consultancy in New York, which specialized in turning businesses around, usually by sacking many of their employees. Its operatives are constantly told of the need to focus on the economic FUNDAMENTALS in the concerns it takes on. He came top in the exacting training programme at Underwood Samson; and his employers value him greatly.
Changez seemed to be well-integrated in America, seemed in love with it, as he was with an American girl called Erica. (The Amazon reviewer “Pipistrel” has intriguing suggestions about the symbolism of the names Changez and Erica.)
He sees quite a lot of her, and she clearly feels affection for him; but he is aware that she has never stopped grieving a Chris, a boy friend who had died of lung cancer the year before he met her. He feels the dead Chris as a rival; and he behaves towards Erica was exquisite tact and never makes any erotic advances. In the end it will be she who will invite him, but their encounters are problematical. She is quite disturbed. There are many days when she does not answer his phone-calls and when he does not see her. At one time he visits her in a clinic where she had sought isolation. He never sees her again: she disappeared from the clinic and would appear to have drowned herself.
While Changez is in Manila on business, the attack on the Twin Towers in New York happens; and he confesses that the symbolism of America being brought to her knees appealed to him, though of course he concealed that from his colleagues. But immediately his life changed. He was searched at the airport before he boarded the plane back to New York, and he was again held back for a while when he arrived there. He is shocked by the American attack on Afghanistan, and alarmed by the threat of war with India. To affirm his identity, he grew a beard, and that made his colleagues uneasy. For his part, what with his disillusionment with America’s policies in Asia and unhappy about Erica’s wish to be left alone, he loses the concentration on his work with Underwood Samson, which had sent him to Chile to assess a struggling publishing firm. He was suddenly aware of the impact his work would have on the people in the publishing firm. A striking comment made by the owner of the firm, comparing Changez with a slave janissary in the service of the Ottomans (Americans) settles it: he is suddenly aware of American intervention all over the world, not only militarily, but also, through institutions like Underwood Samson, financially. He abruptly leaves Chile, and of course he lost his job in New York.
He returned to Lahore. He became a university lecturer, and stimulated his students to demonstrate – peacefully - for the real independence of Pakistan. He gave a powerful television interview in which he bitterly attacked American politics: it went viral. He was warned that the Americans might seek him out for retaliation. Was his American interlocutor in the café, who clearly packed a gun under his clothes, an agent sent to do the job? Or was he armed because he feared that someone like Changez might target him? The book ends with these questions.
A bearded local, clearly well-educated, offers an account of his life to a suspicious and uneasy American man in a market in old Lahore. Is Changez, the Pakistani, an Islamic killer? Is the American (in possession of a gun and satellite phone) a CIA agent tasked with an assassination?
Changez, as it turns out, has been educated in the US, employed by an American consultancy which specialises in rationalising failing businesses and has had a failed relationship with a psychologically damaged American rich girl called Erica. He has embraced his American life style, but this all changes after the 9/11 bombings. On what turns out to be his final assignment (to close down a failing publisher in Chile), the elderly owner tells him about the Janissaries, Christian boys, taken from their homes, forcibly converted to Islam and used as fearsome soldiers against their own people. Changez understands the analogy, resigns his position and returns to Pakistan.
Two stories, then, the outer frame of the meeting in the Lahore market (and its aftermath), the inner core of Changez’ past in America. Imagery, too, the object of his desire, in love with an unattainable past, the beautiful but flawed (Am)Erica, and Changez himself and the changes he undergoes post-9/11. His American boss, Jim, advised him always to keep to the fundamentals. What sort of fundamentalist is Changez anyway?
Also, I think, rather dishonest in both its plots: why would a potential killer, whether Islamist or American, play with his victim for so long? And what sympathy can an objective reader have for a man who rejoices so much at America’s hurt, despite America’s flaws?
It takes the form of a one-sided conversation between Changez, now returned to live in Lahore, and an unidentified American visitor. The narrator outlines his continually evolving relationship with the U.S.A. via both his career as a business analyst, and a tentative love affair; the 2001 terrorist attack on his adopted home city, and conflict involving both Afghanistan and India having rendered his life somewhat complicated.
The story-telling is fluid, playful, pointedly relaxed and surprisingly ambivalent, although the metaphor of Changez' relationship with an unwell woman is perhaps a tad unsubtle. Still, the focus on individuals rather than macro-politics gives it a pleasingly humane dimension.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a fable and as such it has metaphorical elements some of which I personally did not find so successful: Changez' relationship with 'Erica', for example, feels a bit forced as it is clearly intended to stand in for his relationship with 'America' (geddit?). For me, however, this was a small price to pay for an original and gripping story which positions rapacious capitalism as an opposing fundamentalism - one also to be challenged and resisted.
In structure, the book is a long monologue, where a rather mysterious American is button-holed by an equally enigmatic local man in Lahore. The story that unfolds, with its threads of love loss, disillusionment and cultural clashes goes a long way to explain how fundamentalists are made.
Changez is a Pakistani Princeton graduate who begins a career in the financial services sector, coolly valuing firms in poorer countries and potentially bringing job losses to their workers in the interest of dollar profits. The attack on the Twin Towers brings him to see himself as like a Janissary - one of the Christians brought up to serve the Ottoman army - and he realizes that his heart is not in his service to America's global economic empire. Unable to condemn the literary side of a Chilean publishing house, he resigns, loses his visa and returns to Pakistan.
Changez loses his heart to a fellow Princeton student, but she is mourning the loss of her childhood love and sinks into depression. Her name is Erica, from Old Norse, meaning 'eternal ruler'. The relationship is sensitively described, and Changez is a restrained and considerate lover, but her disappearance destroys his last emotional tie to America.
The story is told in a Lahore restaurant to a nervous American secret agent, no doubt sent to get Changez, and the occasional reassurances that he need not be frightened into using his gun give the whole novella a sinister undertone, working up to a climax that leaves the outcome to your imagination. This is one of those rare books that I wanted to start rereading as soon as I got to the end.
'TRF' has a curious narrative style. Written in the first person, as a one sided conversation between a native of Lahore and a Western stranger, there is only one voice. The voice belongs to Changez, who relates the story of his life in America and subsequent return to Pakistan. Overall, I enjoyed the style, though some poetic licence is employed, particularly as the novel draws to a close. That this monologue continued for so long without pause or significant interruption is stretching the bounds of credibility. I think the conversation may be taking place entirely within Changez's head, an imagined encounter; either one yet to happen, or more likely, what Changez wished he had said had he been given the opportunity. Who knows? It's just one of the novel's many ambiguities.
Most of the story recounts Changez's highly successful life in America, first at Princeton, then for a 'Valuation' company; a company that works out the best way to 'streamline' businesses. This not only gives the unsettling impression that Changez's boss looks like Richard Gere, but more importantly shows the reader that, in America, the destruction of assets for financial gain is not only acceptable but also highly lucrative. Changez hangs out with rich privileged types, including Erica another Princeton graduate and the product of America's moneyed elite. The relationship with Erica seems little more than padding to bulk up the story and precipitate Changez's fall from favour. It is probably the weakest aspect of the novel.
After 9/11 everything changes. The scales fall from Changez's eyes, and he becomes disgusted with himself and his adopted country. His decline seems rapid and almost without reason, prompting much criticism from other reviews here. It is at this point the book becomes less concrete, and deals with ideas rather than absolutes.
I read 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' the same weekend as Osama bin Laden was killed, and there has perhaps not been a more relevant time to read it since its publication. The hard-working Pakistani overcome by America's greed, to become a terrorist is a trite cliché, and on the surface that is what happens in this book, but I think Hamid is more subtle than that. Changez is an unreliable narrator. How much of his story can we believe? The argument that America's macho reaction to its wounding may have set yet more people against it, is a persuasive one. Did America's sense of its divine right to smite drive even more people towards fundamentalism? The answer is probably. Yet Changez claims not to be an advocate of terror. Is he lying? Is he self-aware enough to know whether he is lying? Does the American he is talking to know who he is? Is the American intelligence correct or is it a misunderstanding? Is the misunderstanding wilful, and on which side, or both sides?
The final pages hurtle towards a cataclysmic conclusion, before cutting off moments before the scene's climax. Not a popular decision judging by the reactions here, but ultimately just another ambiguity in a novel which is as much about what it doesn't say, than what it does. 'TRF' is easy to read and thought-provoking. The style and abrupt end will not be to everybody's taste, but one thing that is for certain, this novel will provoke a reaction. Once could argue that this is the primary purpose of fiction, making `The Reluctant Fundamentalist' a necessary read.
A book to make you think - about capitalism, about what we count success, and about Western 21st century ways.
And yet, on reflection, how convincing do you find this? Not the narrative device of asking questions like this one, which is clearly a literary artifice we should accept and which I found very easy going, but the essence of the character who is the narrator. Do we understand why he is attracted to Erica and indeed why he is attracted to the US in the first place? And do we understand really why he changes his mind? Yes, it's a dislike of US foreign policy and jingoism. But it's always a bad sign for me in a novel when the narrator says "I don't quite know why I did this; and maybe things would have been better if I'd done something else" And that happens just a little too much. But it doesn't detract from the overall enjoyment of the book too much - and I eagerly look forward to reading other novels by this author.
An important book to read. I couldn't put it down!