Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid, is not – as one is likely to assume from the title – another novel about terrorists or religious fanaticism. It is the monologue of a young man’s infatuation with America, his successful career there, unsuccessful love affair and eventual disenchantment with it all.

Over a meal in Lahore, Changez, the protagonist, explains to an American stranger at this table how he won a scholarship to Princeton and secured a top job in New York. He had felt a bit of an outsider until he moved to New York in 2001, where he loved his new office job and the buzz and cosmopolitan mix of the city. Until he heard about the 9/11 attacks.

When he heard about the attack he smiled. This surprised him. He began to question his view of America. And he began to question the ethos of his employers business - one in which he had to ‘focus on the fundamentals’ – the bottom line (the irony of the title?). This led him to question how he could live in luxury in the USA whilst his fellow countrymen were living on the breadline with American soldiers in their midst.

Working on the valuation of a company, the owner likens him to a janissary. Already a little disenchanted with his role, the discrimination he encounters and the ignorance about world affairs, Changez finds himself in a quandary: is he too working against the interests of his own Pakistan community and culture.

He explains to the American how he gave up his job in America and now works for the university in Lahore organizing anti- American protests. We, the readers, feel at every point that the American is about to hear about the reluctant radicalization of Changez. In turn, Changez asks us to consider whether every Muslim who criticizes America is a fundamentalist.

Alongside the indoctrination of Changez into the corporate world is interwoven his love for Erica, a friend from Princeton. She is as obsessed with her past - the sweetheart who died young - as Changez is with her and his work. The novel would have worked just as well without this love angle: the character of Erica lends nothing to it, and is not quite believable.

Changez, the narrator, notes that the American is on a “mission”, is constantly on his mobile phone, has a holster-like bulge in his jacket and is uneasy with the waiters hanging around. I would be a spoil sport to explain what happens at the end of the book: will it end in the demise of Changez or the American? Hamid keeps the reader guessing.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is very well written as is to be expected from anything shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. Our groupie host gave us a very full background to the novel, the slightly clunky allegorical references (America/Erica both look to the past, Changez/changes etc) and the author’s other rather obvious devices.

We all agreed that the theme was both moral and political. A few thought of it as a love story, most as a thriller. But two of the group found it trite, and one took exception to one message in the book that 9/11 brought home to America what the rest of the world had suffered so long.

When I noted that dates in the story did not quite add up – Changez’ time in the USA, the date of the World Trade Centre attack etc – it was interesting to learn that Hamid had started the book before the attacks and only incorporated the event later. It won’t be the last book to use 9/11 as a disaster to pin stories on, nor the last to examine East/West conflicts. But The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a thought provoking novel, and an enjoyable and easy one to read at that.


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