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.