Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Not A Review..The Reluctant Fundamentalist

"The Reluctant Fundamentalist" by Mohsin Hamid

I originally came across this book while listening to Terry Gross on her show “Fresh Air” on NPR, where she interviewed Mohsin Hamid. I thought it was a must read based on what I heard. My feeling about it was further borne out when I read Lotus’s excellent review about this book.

From the Publisher’s Weekly, a synopsis of the book

Hamid's second book (after Moth Smoke) is an intelligent and absorbing 9/11 novel, written from the perspective of Changez, a young Pakistani whose sympathies, despite his fervid immigrant embrace of America, lie with the attackers. The book unfolds as a monologue that Changez delivers to a mysterious American operative over dinner at a Lahore, Pakistan, cafe. Pre-9/11, Princeton graduate Changez is on top of the world: recruited by an elite New York financial company, the 22-year-old quickly earns accolades from his hard-charging supervisor, plunges into Manhattan's hip social whirl and becomes infatuated with Erica, a fellow Princeton graduate pining for her dead boyfriend. But after the towers fall, Changez is subject to intensified scrutiny and physical threats, and his co-workers become markedly less affable as his beard grows in ("a form of protest," he says). Erica is committed to a mental institution, and Changez, upset by his adopted country's "growing and self-righteous rage," slacks off at work and is fired. Despite his off-putting commentary, the damaged Changez comes off as honest and thoughtful, and his creator handles him with a sympathetic grace.

This is a beautifully written book, and Hamid’s uses of prose, elegant yet simple packs a punch and the book had me turning the page, eager to know what happened next. The book completely enthralled me and although it is written in the form of a monologue, the book will draw you in. And as Lotus Reads says in her review depending on your viewpoint you will either love it or be discomforted by it, but I can't see anyone being indifferent to it.

I was entranced and repelled by aspects of this book, but it got me thinking. In a lot of respects this is unlike any 911 related book that I have come across. While the events of that day are truly life altering for the protagonist in the book, they only serve as a catalyst for bringing forth a deeper discontent that always appears to simmer within him. This was seemingly hidden under the urbane exterior of someone who comes from the crème de la crème of Pakistan, has graduated from an elite American university and works for a top notch financial firm. He is love with an American girl and is living the American dream.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist brings out issues of identity, culture, religion and the explosive mix that results when politics and world events threaten one’s very identity and place in the world. While the issues of identity are in of themselves not new especially for folks who are immigrants, this book provides a look at those struggles and puts them center stage providing a view in to a mindset of a individual’s transformation in to a “reluctant fundamentalist”.

Things that I found notable about the book..

The bare plot and the ambiguous ending. As they leave the restaurant where most of this book happens, we are never quite sure as to who the prey is and who the hunter is. This I thought was rather masterly. I also loved the character of the mysterious American who Changez is having this conversation with. He could have been just a tourist, although seeing him thru Changez’s words we can surmise he is one of those American special forces types.

Changez’s tone changes during his conversation. He is sly, sinister, somewhat threatening, respectful, welcoming, angry and at times patronizing. The American comes across as wary, watchful and often seeing shadows and enemies in seemingly ordinary activities of the day in the restaurant and the city. Are they really enemies? Is Changez just another sympathetic voice in the many that are not fond of America? Or is he one that is merely providing the others a platform to voice their feelings while denying any responsibility for their actions. I found this intriguing, for the world is surely grey, often with murky shifting alliances that are often easy to dismiss in to a broad category of “them” or “they don’t like us”.

I also thought that mysterious American could also be thought of as a metaphor for the West or America in particular. He reflects the wariness and suspicion often found in the West about the Muslim world.

Changez’s feelings from his start as an eager, ardent student at Princeton to his present status as a fundamentalist (albeit a reluctant one) cover the gamut… admiration, rage, envy and befuddlement often reflecting the way the outside world views America.

There is a love story in this narrative, and in some respects it is not like most love stories. Erica, the girl that Changez loves never quite truly accepts him. Her intense attachment to her deceased boyfriend Chris, whom she knows since childhood remains a barrier that never goes away and he loves her despite knowing that she can never be his emotionally. Their love making where he asks her to imagine him to be Chris leaves him satiated yet feeling used. I was not quite sure what made Changez love Erica, especially given her lack of emotional attachment to him.

The events of 911 are the catalyst for the unraveling of two lives, the emotionally fragile Erica and the protagonist. I was able to understand what it meant for his character to be discriminated against because of his looks and where he came from. I could understand (but not always agree) about some of his grievances against American policies. For most reasonably informed people it is easy to see how the footprint of American policy can have far ranging and at times unanticipated consequences and engender resentment. Having said that I just could not sympathize with Changez’s change of heart or the way his identity supersedes everything else following 9/11 and even as those tragic events unfold.

"...I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased... I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees..."

These lines from the book made me wonder if his persona in America was just a sham and that his education, his job and his living the good life here were a mere façade. I was repulsed by this. It made me wonder what is it about ones religion and identity that might make them suspend reason.

While it may be possible to put oneself in the principal’s shoes and try to understand his conversion to someone who becomes anti-American, yet I found it untenable on another level given that the country has been good to him. I could not quite follow how easy it was for him to pull for people of his clan/religion when he never appeared to be particularly religious to begin with in the first place.

But my personal opinions not withstanding the book I believe is a must read. There are not enough books out there that let you have a peek inside the transformational process of someone who is reasonably Westernized and a product of an excellent higher education system in to a diffident zealot. You may not like the character in this book or his justifications, but read it we must for although a work of fiction it helps us understand the world better.

I am not sure if the author draws upon his experiences or his own feelings to create this character. If he does it will surely be interesting to understand the genesis of this process.

Mohsin Hamid recently wrote an opinion piece “Why Do They Hate Us” in the Washington Post, and it makes for interesting reading. He ends it on the following note

The challenge that the United States faces today boils down to a choice. It can insist on its primacy as a superpower, or it can accept the universality of its values. If it chooses the former, it will heighten the resentment of foreigners and increase the likelihood of visiting disaster upon distant populations -- and vice versa. If it chooses the latter, it will discover something it appears to have forgotten: that the world is full of potential allies.

I'm one of them. I do not currently live in the United States, but I still believe in its potential for good. And like so many who wonder how our new and more integrated world can be built on a foundation that is humane and just, I look to the land where I, a writer, first learned to write, and allow myself to dream.

17 comments:

chandni said...

Hi Jay,

I have recently finished the book and just loved it. I also love ur view which echoes my thoughts mostly and is written like a true pro, balanced and all ;P

The most remarkable ting was the refreshing style of writing...using a monologue, very diff from most books of our times...

For now, it is back to Harry Potter!

Aditi said...

hmm I havent read the book and despite your intriguing review, I am not sure I will ever pick up somthing this dark.
It seems interesting, and its probably something that stands true to the core. Most of the radicals are probably disenchanted youths who found another place to fit in better...
sounds horrible doenst it?

Sanjay said...

Hey Chandni. I am glad you loved the book and thank you for your kind words. I agree with you that the style of writing and use of language and the monologue were different and elegant. Enjoy the Harry Potter. :)

@Aditi. Despite the review, I don't think this is that dark a book. Yes it was disturbing to read how easily the protagonist changed. I truly thought he had it all, goes to show how for some people their tribal/religious identity overtakes everything else.

Lotus Reads said...

An excellent, excellent NOT a review Sanjay!

Seriously, I think someone who is looking for a good and exhaustive write-up on RF, should look no further than your review.

While the events of that day are truly life altering for the protagonist in the book, they only serve as a catalyst for bringing forth a deeper discontent that always appears to simmer within him. This was seemingly hidden under the urbane exterior of someone who comes from the crème de la crème of Pakistan, has graduated from an elite American university and works for a top notch financial firm. He is love with an American girl and is living the American dream

Yes, good point! I, too, wondered at that, after all, (according to Newsweek) it is a well-known fact that Muslim Americans represent the most affluent, integrated and politically engaged Muslim community in the Western world. In stark contrast, Muslims in Europe don't fare half as well, they are left to live in ghettos on the fringes of society and are never allowed to become a part of the mainstream, American Muslims have never had the need to feel that way, or have they??? The way Changez changed so rapidly from mild-mannered Pakistani man to fundamentalist had me wondering if he was not harboring angst against the Americans even while he living this American dream? A scary thought if you ask me.

I agree with you, the ambiguous ending was a masterly stroke and one that makes this book very difficult to forget.

Also, I think Hamid did such a powerful job portraying the Erica-Changez relationship. Changez's gnawing yearning, his desperation to win her over, his concern for well being is palpable to the reader. It's such a pity that the only feelings she has is for a dead man.

I also thought that the mysterious American could also be thought of as a metaphor for the West or America in particular. The American reflects the wariness and suspicion often found in the West towards the Muslim world.

Good point Sanjay. In the character of the American, Hamid very nicely captures the paranoia of the west.

Great NOT a review Sanjay, mind if I post a link to your write-up on my blog?

And, thank you so much for the mention, I so appreciate it!

Sanjay said...

Lotus.. Thanks very much for the your kind words and your very insightful comments. Your great review was what inspired me to really read this book.

American Muslims have never had the need to feel that way, or have they??? The way Changez changed so rapidly from mild-mannered Pakistani man to fundamentalist had me wondering if he was not harboring angst against the Americans even while he living this American dream? A scary thought if you ask me.

You know you are spot on with that point and it is an excellent one. One of the many good things about the US is how easy it is to assimilate and you are right American Muslims have never had to feel different. Which is why Changez's transformation did not convince me as much or like you say its scary if he changed so quickly.

Hamid did indeed capture the paranoia of the West rather well. And I never quite understood the desperation of Changez for Erica.Do you have any more thoughts on that?

Please feel free to provide a link on your post to this post. Thank you for that and all your thoughts. :)

NainaAshley said...

Great Review Sanjay! Another one to add to my "to read" list. Though I haven't read the book I can see wat you mean by
"I could not quite follow how easy it was for him to pull for people of his clan/religion when he never appeared to be particularly religious to begin with in the first place.
I would wonder the same too. Being a non-religious person it is hard for me to understand this kind of solidarity based solely on religion especially if the person was not religioud to begin with.

Keshi said...

all u book-lovers...I feel so left out here :(

Keshi.

ML said...

Sanjay, what an excellent and thorough write up of this book.

Sanjay said...

Naina, Thank you for your response. I agree with you about the protagonist's sudden transformation being unconvincing.

While not religious he might have been more into his identity as a Muslim and maybe the events of 9/11 and after that just pushed him over? Its a mystery to ponder about.

@Keshi.. Aww. :)

@ML. Thank you for your kind words.

Sai said...

Hey lovely review!!! I heard the interview on NPR as well, where this author came across as very articulate and thoughtful. I remember reading Lotuses review as well.

THanks for sharing!

Beach Bum said...

The Reluctant Fundamentalist brings out issues of identity, culture, religion and the explosive mix that results when politics and world events threaten one’s very identity and place in the world.

I can not describe how many times I have talked with fellow Americans for whom the peoples of the Middle East might as well be aliens from another solar system. Some of the remarks I've heard have been some of the most racist and ignorant I have ever heard about any group. Because of the attacks on 9/11 I we had every right to seek out those that were apart of that crime. But the actions and policies this country has pursued in that region for decades has done much to breed hatred of America. If this book can at least for a short time allow some to see the world through the eyes of someone not engrossed in the the American mindset and culture it will have done a lot.
This was a great not-a-review and I will be ordering this one from Amazon.

Sanjay said...

@Sai.. Thank you. Yes he is a sharp guy.

@Beach you said it really well Thanks. I agree with your sentiments. I am glad you liked the book enough to buy it. I hope it is an engrossing and enjoyable read for you.

Manas Shaikh said...

I want to read it. I think all the hoopla should be about THIS book, rather than Harry Potter.

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