"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
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
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
I also thought that mysterious American could also be thought of as a metaphor for the West or
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
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
These lines from the book made me wonder if his persona in
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.