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.