Monday, August 27, 2007

'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' - A Review

My review of Mohsin Hamid's 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' which appeared here last week:

The politics of the Middle East and South Asia and the relationship of the United States with many of the countries in the region have been fodder for many journalistic articles and fictional books in the past. Post-9/11, the happenings in the region have taken on an even larger significance and consequently spurred a huge onslaught of writing by contemporary authors. Released earlier this year, it was only natural then that I was keen on reading Mohsin Hamid’s ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, a book that many people I know kept talking about. The word on the street was that it was quite riveting.

I’m going to burst the bubble right here and say up front that I was slightly disappointed. I have not read Hamid’s first work, ‘Moth Smoke’ which was a Betty Trask Award winner, a PEN/Hemingway award finalist and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, but I will say that ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ certainly is a book that started out with a lot of promise, but faltered somewhere along the way. In today’s political climate, it had the potential to resonate much more strongly than it eventually did.

Hamid has chosen for his style of writing the first-person narrative, which is very courageous. There are not many books that immediately come to mind that are written in the first person – Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ is one that came to me after some thought – and while it is a powerful tool in immediately engaging the reader, the writer also risks losing his attention equally fast if he is not crystal clear with his thoughts, because there is no opportunity to clarify what he means. It’s like being in a class where the professor does not allow you to ask questions, even if you don’t quite get bits of the lesson. In this story, the one-way conversation is between Changez (pronounced ‘Chun-gays’, the Urdu word for Genghis), a young Princeton-educated Pakistani who chooses to return to his home country following the turmoil that he is thrown into after the World Trade Center bombings in New York, and a nameless, voiceless American visitor, as they sit in a restaurant in Lahore one evening.

Changez, the product of a once-rich Lahori family that enjoyed elite status in the city, sails across the seas to study at Princeton University in the US. He is the beneficiary of a scholarship – but he tries to hide this from his fellow schoolmates as he feels it betrays the fact that he once used to belong to their class – a social class that can afford to pay their fees at the elite university they attend. He is at the end of his four-year undergraduate degree in 2001 when he begins his story, and goes on a trip with a group of friends to Greece before he starts his first job with Underwood Samson in New York, an extremely competitive valuation firm that he is fortunate to be selected to join. During the trip, he falls in love with Erica, a fellow Princetonian and a budding writer with problems of her own. As New York comes together in the aftermath of 9/11, Changez is forced to face the doubts that lurk in his mind over the happenings in his home country and the increasing possibility of a war with India, as well as the inaction of the US with respect to Pakistan. He finally throws up all he wanted – his well-paying job, the security and status it offered, and returns to Pakistan, even as he is not wholly convinced that what he is doing is right.

The book is not so much a novel as a novella – there is an interesting reference to Erica’s writing in the story which is an accurate reflection of this book itself, of how the novella is a ‘platypus of a beast’ – and ultimately this was perhaps its undoing. With a little more exploration of the theme – the book clocks in at just 184 pages – Changez’ character could have been developed better, and that would have made for a smoother flow of the story. All along, all we see is the confusion in Changez’ mind. He truly is constantly reluctant, as the book’s title asserts. But his evolution into a so-called fundamentalist is less evident. Given the political atmosphere in the US, it is understandable why he felt the eyes of suspicion, being a brown-skinned South Asian. But why did he suddenly feel pushed to make his ethnicity so evident – going so far as to grow a beard, and invite attention? There wasn’t much explained about Changez’ views on Afghanistan and American intervention there, but he was clearly against India and lack of American intervention there – so where exactly was his anger against the US coming from?

On the positive side, Changez’ romance with Erica was sensitively written and that bit of the story, not what one would typically expect. Hamid’s knowledge of the corporate world also comes in handy when he writes about Changez’ experience at Underwood Samson (Hamid worked at McKinsey & Company in New York for a while, after obtaining degrees from Princeton and then Harvard). All in all, ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is a book that is worth a read, but that will in all likelihood leave you with unanswered questions in your mind when you finish.

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