The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) – Mohsin HAMID

I’ve just finished a stressful essay on Modernist poetry, and needed something to take my mind off the depression such an essay can cause. Not literal depression, mind, just the despair of realising you have absolutely no idea what on earth these poets are trying to say. So, I dipped into the small pile of unread books on my shelf, and this one popped out at me. Shotlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, I see. Well, Darkmans was good. Surely this one, too?

Two mysterious men – one Pakistani, one American – meet in a cafe in the streets of Lahore, both with secrets to hide, and both with a story to tell. It is up to the Pakistani man, Changez, however, to tell the other the story of his recent life in America, and what led him to be the person that he is today. Being a foreigner in America immediately after the September 11 attacks, he tells the other man of his comfortable life being interrupted by racism, attacks, and the depression of his on-again, off-again American girlfriend.

Well, I wasn’t expecting this book to be as good as it is. I read it in two sittings, staying up late last night to finish. It’s like an extended short story, helped no doubt by the trick of the narrator actually speaking to “you”, for the reader becomes the American man to whom this story is narrated. It’s a nice touch, and the interruptions to the actual story, with the sub-plot of what is actually going on in this little cafe, are excellently done. I can imagine exactly how this small, polite Pakistani man might come up to me and start telling me the story of his life.

The story of Changez’s life in America is very well done, and the pun in the title of the book is a nice touch – while fundamentalist might conjure up images of suicide bombers and the such in today’s world, he actually becomes an economic fundamentalist – working for a company for whom the bottom dollar, the truth of each transaction, is vital, fundamental, even. His slowly growing disillusion with the way America works, and then responds to these events, unfolds perfectly, and you certainly understand exactly where he is coming from. While this could have so easily turned into an anti-American rant, Hamid restrains himself (far more than I think I ever could), and convincingly and calmly argues his point. Which, yes, is anti-American in its final message.

Perhaps most interesting is the ending. While the normal thing to do would be to end with Changez becoming some kind of fundamental American hater, he becomes a university lecturer, who holds classes that are not exactly pro-American in their leanings. To say that he becomes a terrorist is to deny what happens, though, granted, he could be lying. It just seems to be unfortunate that he ends up caught up in this world that tags him as a terrorist, simply because he is from Pakistan, and because he doesn’t like America. And yet, just as the American man to whom he is speaking doesn’t trust him, or anyone else around him for that matter, there is a sense that perhaps Changez is not telling the whole truth – the man doth protest too much, and all that. The ending doesn’t help to solve the ultimate uncertainty of what Changez’s role in all of this is, but I like to think that an intelligent reader will extrapolate that he isn’t an extremist – the rest of the book would certainly indicate that he does not have the ability to do something extreme.

What an excellent look at how the rest of the world currently views America. From an author who clearly has experience from both sides of the fence, this is a surprisingly though-provoking novel that deals with problems that are amazingly pertinent in today’s world. Short and sweet, but it will certainly make you think.

And I’m sorry about that terrible rhyme. My bad.

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5 thoughts on “The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) – Mohsin HAMID

  1. […] Fundamentalist I just got around to reading this (free copy from work), and my thoughts are here. Or, if you don’t want to go there… I really enjoyed this. I don’t think the whole […]

  2. Hi there, I followed you here from the World Literature Forum.

    Most reviews I’ve read of this have been fairly negative, particularly with respect to the framing device and the interjections with waiters and suchlike. It seems though that the book spoke more to you than to many others, which is interesting. How convincing did you find the characterisation? Did the characterisation even matter do you think or is this more a novel of ideas?

    I suppose put another way, is it a novel or is it an argument in novel form? Or is that maybe a false distinction?

  3. matttodd says:

    I suppose it’s hard to find a distinction between novel and argument. Both are certainly overtly present in this book, but I didn’t find the argument to get in the way of the story and characters. I like the idea that the American Dream can only be attained by someone who is already a part of society, and must not waver from the accepted path.

    Look, the framing device is just a conceit to get the story told. The beginning subverts the racial profiling idea, which is cool, and the rest is just a way for Changez to talk to an American about the bits of contemporary American that aren’t so flash hot. His eventual journey into the world of anti-Americanism is not done on purpose – and I still don’t think the anti-American thing is pushed that much.

    Does that help?

  4. It does, certainly I’m more interested in it after your review than I was before.

    Framing devices to be honest aren’t a huge issue for me, if it occasionally jars then I can forgive that, the device in Animal’s People occasionally jarred but ultimately it was still a great novel.

    Personally, I would draw a distinction between criticising America and anti-Americanism, this sounds to me firmly in the first camp rather than the second, and I don’t think anywhere is above criticism.

    Hm, I shall take a look again at it. Thanks.

  5. […] things first. This book is legitimately interesting. It’s one of the few contemporary novels (The Reluctant Fundamentalist is another good one) that actually faces one of the central tenants of Western society at the […]

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