Sunday, October 26, 2008

Book Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
Book Review - Uma Anyar
Ironically, the American dream of success, recognition and status has been achieved by Mohsin Hamid, the Pakistani author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a novel about a Princeton educated Muslim man who rejects becoming Americanized and returns to Lahore to tell his story to an anonymous American dinner companion who may or may not be a CIA agent.
Hamid the writer, like his hero Chandez, graduated from Princeton and worked for a New York business consulting company at an enviable salary. He currently lives in London and this book has been short listed for the Man Booker Prize. Chandez, the character, walked away from success, the writer Hamid did not. The book is written in a confessional style that elicits trust and draws on the author’s experience; to what degree, is left for the reader to wonder.
Chandez captures our attention more firmly than his mysterious American. Despite all that is implied by Chandez’s assumptions as to who he might be, we have to admire the guy for sitting through a long hot Lahore afternoon and evening listening to Chandez unload his life story without uttering a single peep himself. Writers are in control as long as they remain in the framework of fiction where anything is possible- even a silent, all ears listener.
The strength of this novel is the narrator’s compelling voice, which is calm, polite, and at times solicitous. The reader is his true target and Hamid had no trouble capturing my sympathetic ear.
The plot of a bright, hardworking, striving young man who either wants to rise in social status, like Fitzgerald’s J. Gatsby, or like Chandez, to reclaim what his family had lost, is familiar to most readers. This outsider falls in love with a patrician Princeton coed, Erica, who hails from a wealthy upper east side New York family. Their relationship is doomed by her nostalgic love for her childhood boyfriend Chris, who died of cancer. Changez has unconsciously been playing the part of an assimilated American so long that he encourages Erica to sleep with him and pretend that she is making love to Chris. The love story seems contrived until one realizes it is an allegory for America herself. Can America get over its nostalgia for its past and embrace change and true acceptance of the “Other”?
As Erica succumbs to depression and is committed to a mental institution, Changez, while on a corporate business trip to Manila where he watched the events of 9/11 on a hotel TV, discovers his true self.
“I stared as one — and then the other — of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.”
His secret, hidden anger reveals itself to him through his unexpected smile. From then on he can no longer play the game. He goes on working but the psychological erosion continues and finally he walks out on an important job, which his mentor has granted him as a sign of support and esteem. Instead of working on the appraisal of a publishing house in Valparaiso, Chile, Chandez spends his days at Pablo Neruda’s house. The final veil is pulled from Chandez’s eyes by one of the publishers who compares him to the Janissaries, early Christians, who were captured in their youth by the Ottomans and trained to fight against their own people. Chandez’s curt departure, “I’m done,” is both cinematic smart-ass and realistically believable, since there is never much to say when an irrevocable decision has been reached in the depth of one’s soul.
Chandez returns to Lahore and becomes a university lecturer in economics who may be helping student led anti American protests. We are brought back to the question of who the mysterious American might be. Paranoia and the depressing sense of mistrust of anyone “Other”- be it Pakistani Muslim or American Christian, does not bode well for a peaceful world. Who is the reluctant fundamentalist, the polite but angry narrator, or the silent suspicious looking American with the possible gun in his suit jacket?
“…You should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.”
Mohsin Hamid’s short compelling novel pulls you in for a leisurely meal of juicy shiskababs at a sidewalk cafe, carries you along for 184 pages of confessions and introspection and then leaves you sitting alone at a table where fears and a sense of dismay for a peaceful mutual future lie beside the bread crumbs and dirty plates.

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