I went to a conference for emerging Asian Studies scholars at the end of last year (don’t ask me how I got an invite—I felt horribly out of place), and there were two buzz words/phrases that got pulled out at almost every lecture. The first was “Asian Century”, a reference to the Australian Government’s recent White Paper; the second was “rising Asia”, a term to describe the many emerging and developing economies of South East and West Asia.
This obsession is not isolated to academia. In the past few months, two novels from prominent Asian authors have dealt with this idea of “rising Asia”, of people coming to terms with rapidly developing economies, and finding their place in this new paradigm. While Tash Aw’s excellent Five Star Billionaire took a somewhat dim view of the way of life brought about in developed Shanghai, Mohsin Hamid seems to revel in it.
Much like Aw’s book, Hamid’s novel is also based around the dodgy advice doled out by self-help books that seem to litter bookstores and airport shops all around the world. But Hamid’s novel is a little more biting, choosing to mercilessly mock these ridiculous books, by subverting the aphorisms they so love to dole out.
I can’t review Filthy Rich without mentioning some stylistic features. anyone who’s ever read a Choose Your Own Adventure Novel—where you get to be the protagonist!—will find themselves in familiar territory. The narrator is ostensibly Hamid, who is having a conversation with “you”, the reader. He tells you the story of your life, in sections corresponding to what we might see in a real-life how-to-get-rich guide, from the first step (“Move to the city”) to the last (“Have an exit strategy”). Each is a snippet of your life, an important moment in time as you move from poor village dweller to one of the richest people in the country, having control of many slightly shady drinking water deals with the local government.
Somehow, your life seems to be blessed. You manage to get all the opportunities everyone in rising Asia wants. You get into a good school, at the expense of your sister; you get into university, dabbling in religious extremism, but never committing; you start a dodgy water cleaning business, selling to enough businesses for you to hire staff; and by the end, you
What this novel does, though, is manage to transcend its cultural and temporal surroundings. It is not only the protagonist that has no name—the country we are in, even the city, are left unnamed. Though there are enough clues to suggest it is probably somewhere in the subcontinent, there is enough ambiguity that it is not a stretch of the imagination to see the action take place in south east Asia, or even Africa.
Drawing on the traditions of authors like Italo Calvino, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia has a depth of both style and substance, and should be a strong contender for this year’s batch of prizes. Along with the recent film version of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it should mark Mohsin Hamid out as one of the rising stars of contemporary postmodern literature.