April 26, 2007

Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Posted in Hamid Mohsin at 12:52 pm by John Self

The use of quotes by other authors on the cover of a new novel is a curious business.  Whatever it states, the implication is always “This book is a bit like mine.”  Hence the praise from Booker-winning Penguin stablemate Kiran Desai on the front of Mohsin Hamid’s second novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  It seeks to cover Hamid with a little of Desai’s kudos.  But the quote which interested me more is on the back cover, from Philip Pullman: “More exciting than any thriller I’ve read for a long time, as well as being a subtle and elegant analysis of the state of our world today.”

Now I would be very surprised if Philip Pullman reads many thrillers, and excitement is not really the mode of the book.  In fact it is a meticulous and leisurely tale, taking its time to tell its story, despite coming in at under 200 pages.

It is narrated by Changez, a young Pakistani who has returned home after working in the USA for several years, and is now relating his life to an American seated next to him at a cafe table in Lahore.  The title gives the game away somewhat, and what we are witnessing is Changez’ transformation – gradually and then suddenly – from wealthy westernised operator to an altogether more dangerous prospect.  That in itself is a particular Western viewpoint, and the book reminds us of the angle that as a lackey of corporate America, he was arguably part of something plenty dangerous to begin with.

His job in New York was with a company called Underwood Samson, which values companies ripe for takeover.  As such he and his colleagues are typically unwelcome and mistrusted wherever they go: an obvious parallel to Changez’ position in the US after September 11.  He falls in love with a girl called Erica, but she can’t get over her first teenage lover who died of cancer.  And eventually, when the twin towers of the World Trade Centre collapse, Changez feels he has become a traitor to his own people:

Then he asked, “Have you heard of the janissaries?”  “No,” I said.  “They were Christian boys,” he explained, “captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world. They were ferocious and utterly loyal: they had fought to erase their own civilisations, so they had nothing else to turn to.”

And so Changez – the name with obvious symbolic intent – returns to Pakistan, where he becomes a figure of controversy.  The final transformation is convincing – we are used to the demonisation of people like the man (and terrorist?) he has become – even if the steps up to it are less persuasive.  What keeps the story together is Hamid’s control of the narrative voice, which is impeccably moderate and almost Ishiguro-like in its calm authority.

I had mixed feelings about the overarching story of Changez and his American table companion, which is narrated to us almost in asides at the start and end of each chapter.  It gives the novel a structure, but all the signposts it offers – “this burly fellow is merely our waiter, and there is no need to reach inside your jacket, I assume to grasp your wallet” – are jarringly obvious (particularly in comparison with the minimalist style) and nothing the reader anticipates fails to materialise.

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9 Comments »

  1. herschelian said,

    Thanks for that review, after reading it I have decided to put the book on my Must Read list.
    I really enjoy reading your blog BTW, any voracious reader is a friend of mine!

  2. [...] a normal lad get tied up with terrorism, Cal is an interesting comparison with Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist: and comes out far on top, for its humanity and balanced wisdom.  Here, there are no goodies and [...]

  3. John Self said,

    Thanks for visiting, herschelian. In fact I had mixed feelings about The Reluctant Fundamentalist – even now I’m not certain how much I liked it – but I’m glad my comments have been persuasive to you!

    (I see from your blog you’re a fan of Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt – terrific book, I read it last year and am looking forward to finding more of his stuff!)

  4. Can someone anyone tell me or is it a well-kept trade secret? Do people get paid for these puffs on books? If so then the likes of Helen DuNmore, Philip Pullman and Hilary Mantel could probably give up writing novels and just write these.Those three have read just about every book I’ve picked up in the last few months.

  5. Paul said,

    I am so surprised at the glowing reviews this book has gotten; not that it’s outright bad, I pretty much agree with Mr Self’s review, but the first 5 pages were excrutiating in my opinion. It’s just that the book so often feels like it’s talking down to me (the first 5 pages being the worst) and ‘challenging’ me with ideas that are so obvious that I feel embarrassed to find that they are actually new to people over the age of 15.

    There is just so much of the book that screams ‘MARKETING’. From the ‘controversial’ subject matter to the gimmicky narrative style to the lightweight length of it – 200 pages is short enough to hook non-literary readers but long enough not to be mistaken for a kid’s book ;) .

    Also, mirroring events or circumstances in the author’s life to imply ‘like, did he really, like, experience these things?’ It’s a trick Brett Easton Ellis does much better.

    I was at times intrigued by Changez’s relationship with Erica – the narrator exclaims how much he cares about her but if you consider some of his behaviour towards here, you can see that much of it can be seen to be subtly very selfish and immature. At about the 150 page mark, I was thinking that this was actually intentional. But by the end I realised that in all probability, Mohsin Hamid was unaware of that selfish, self-deceiving undercurrent.

    To illustrate this further: When Changez leaves his work for the last time, he describes how he sees the truth behind American culture. We can regard this in the literal sense of America truly being an exploitative caste system (possibly true), but the reality is that Changez is deceiving himself, acting out his own frustration and anger and generalising a latent hostility across an entire country as an excuse to cultivate his fundamentalist ideas. He acted out his frustration with Erica in Brazil and he’s doing it again on his last day and back in Pakistan. If the author had meant this psychological insight, then I applaude him. I just don’t think it WAS intentional.

  6. srijitghosh said,

    I personally enjoyed the book thoroughly. And I liked your review to. As an immigrant student myself, I feel that the book does one thing amazingly: it underlines the subtle and blatant cultural differences between the East and West.
    Though I do think that Hamid could’ve added more pages to build up a longer story. It seems almost brusque: as if it began and ended at the same time. Or maybe I’m just used to reading horribly long novels.

  7. Have you read his second novel srijitgosh? I reviewed this at mine (I liked it more than John, but still had reservations). I’ve bought his second, but haven’t yet gone round to it. Other books always seem more pressing.

    John, I take it you weren’t fussed enough to check out his second?

  8. John Self said,

    Just as a note, Max – and I hope this is worth mentioning other than just as a point of pedantry – I take it by “his second novel” you mean Moth Smoke, which Penguin published last year? In fact Moth Smoke was Hamid’s first novel, initially published by Granta in 2000, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist was his second; the Penguin Moth Smoke was a reissue.

    I say this is not just a point of pedantry because I did receive a copy of Moth Smoke and started it but didn’t continue. It didn’t give me the feeling of being an advancement on The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but rather a more traditional story – and why not, since it was written 7 years earlier? So what I’m getting at is that if you are holding off on Moth Smoke because you think it might be a more mature work than The Reluctant Fundamentalist and worth waiting to read, you might be disappointed. (Then again you might not…)

    Incidentally, I haven’t read my review above since I wrote it, but my memory now is broadly positive towards The Reluctant Fundamentalist. And did you know that it has sold 300,000 copies in the UK? Extraordinary figures for a slim literary novel by a relatively unknown author, which has had no real promotion other than a Booker shortlisting.

  9. Not pedantic at all. Annoyingly I had known that, but had forgotten. No wonder it seemed less interesting structurally.

    That moves Moth Smoke for me into my light reading category. Oh well.

    300,000 is remarkable, though it did get a big push. It was actually a very accessible novel, provided you could get comfortable with the framing device.


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