Mohsin Hamid’s novel has its weaknesses, but it is beguiling, provocative and goes to the heart of the mistrust between two nations who have found themselves as reluctant allies
‘Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened of my beard. I am a lover of America…’
So begins Mohsin Hamid’s provocative novel, a short-lister for the 2007 Man Booker Prize and the basis for a recently released film.That opening monologue, and in fact the entire novel, is delivered by Changez to an American he spots wandering in Lahore. Together they sit for a meal at a nearby café, where Changez entertains his guest with the story of his time in America; studying at Princeton, holidaying with his new wealthy American friends, his high pressure job on Wall Street. His story hooks you straight away; it’s all obsessive ambition and insomniac work ethic like the early scenes of The Firm.
Together they take in the surroundings of Lahore as the afternoon reclines into evening and Changez is eager to be a good host and let his guest experience something of his home town. The American is reluctant to discuss his business in Lahore and is routinely put on edge by his surroundings but Changez is always quick to put him at ease.
But as Changez’s story progresses, his Western dream quickly unravels. His American girlfriend, Erica, is increasingly disturbed and the way he is treated in his adopted home following 9/11 makes him question his loyalties.
The novel follows a frame structure. Hamid/Changez breaks the story with observations, anecdotes and asides and uses them to link the past with the present and teleport the reader forwards and backwards in time and space. It is effective and mostly well done. I suspect that the structural technique, as well as the topic itself, is one of the main reasons the novel is increasingly popular reading material on curriculums. But the structure is perhaps too transparent and unartful.
Hamid’s greatest achievement in the novel is its pacing. The story builds momentum as Changez’s life disintegrates until the tension becomes too great as you hurry through the final chapter to the stories conclusion. My heart was racing through the final few pages.
But is it literature? Philip Pullman called it ‘beautifully written’, Kiran Desai called it ‘brilliant’. It is entertaining, it is beguiling, the techniques are utilised reasonable well and give the story considerable power. It is also restrained, which is to its advantage, but in brevity it loses depth.
Changez’s monologue perhaps does not express his disillusionment adequately enough for the reader to share it to the required extent. The ‘reluctance’ of the said fundamentalist thereby is harder to believe. Far from being the innocent product of his experiences, perhaps a fundamentalist seed was always within Changez, waiting for the right circumstances to let it emerge. Given the title, we might be forgiven for thinking the author did not succeed in convincing the reader that Changez has changed and that it was forced upon him.
That being said, the novel is deliberately vague. We know practically nothing of the American Changez is addressing. He seems more likely to be a spy than a tourist, but perhaps not the everyman you might expect. What does this say for the author’s intent when Changez addressing the American is perhaps a foil for the author addressing the reader?
The nature of Changez is also kept elusive. He tells his story so well we forget that we can’t be certain it is true. The form of the novel, with Changez talking to the American alone, means there is no one else to corroborate his story. The prejudiced mistrust he felt living in America post-9/11 is contrasted with Changez asking the American (and the reader) to trust him. Even at the end of the novel we still can’t be sure we should trust him. Boundaries of caution and prejudice become blurred.
There is enough ambiguity to keep you reassessing the book and to lead different readers to alternate interpretations. But without artistry you may not find yourself dwelling on it, or reliving it, for too long. The ambiguity also leaves little ability to confirm the author’s intentions and whether he achieved them.
I did not care for the occasional pop-cultural references. I felt they eroded the mystique of the locale and while Changez may have only made those references to ingratiate himself with his guest it made him seem like he still had plenty of the American in him.
Through Changez and his American guest, Hamid evokes the mutual mistrust between America and Pakistan
Symbolism is also rampant in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but the names were a little annoying – Changez and [Am]Erica. Many writers enjoy having fun with naming their characters but was Hamid too clever here (or not clever enough)? Every time ‘Changez’ appeared in the novel I got David Bowie stuck in my head.
The names are not merely fun. Erica symbolises his relationship with America; his affections are not requited, she dwells on tragic events in her recent past and cannot accept Changez for who he is. He even tries, with success, to gain her affection by pretending to be something he is not. And yet a part of him still very much wants to reconcile with Erica; he wants the relationship to work.
His employer Underwood Sampson (ie US) represents the materialistic, competitive meritocracy his ambition and greed makes him eager to become a part of. But they also require a level of loyalty of him, and to fit a mould, that Changez increasingly finds he is unable to accept. The fundamentalism in the title refers to Changez’s two occupations – formerly an analyst at Underwood Sampson and now a university professor inspiring politically-minded Pakistani youths. Both imply a focus on principle, on what is truly important, ignoring spin, agenda, propaganda and polemic, or equally an inability to see the forest for the trees.
Like Changez’s relationships with Erica and Underwood Sampson, Pakistan’s relationship with the US and the West have been problematic at best. During most of the independence movement, most of the major players were against partitioning British India. There are even suggestions that below Muhammad Ali Jinnah his Muslim League colleagues were more pliant to keeping India unified. But WWII changed views. With the Cold War still young and the man most likely to be India’s Prime Minister (Nehru) a socialist, whose party was already establishing ties with communist Russia and China prior to independence; Britain and the US saw the advantage of having a potential ally on the subcontinent and covertly supported partition. However, neither the US or Britain have done much to stay on good terms with Pakistan, treating it as either a grudgingly accepted ally or a potential enemy to be threatened and sanctioned. The mutual mistrust expressed in Hamid’s novel is nothing new
Hopefully the literary world will see more Pakistani writers in English. Compared to their neighbour to the east, we have not heard as much Pakistani literature in English as we should hope. Both countries have large English-literate populations; diverse, exotic cultures; ancient histories, long-supported arts and literature and are also major battlegrounds for issues that seem contemporary though they have roots dating back centuries. Yet India boasts Salman Rushdie, Anita and Kiran Desai, Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh to name just a few. Even its western neighbour has Khaled Hosseini leading new Afghan writers. Pakistan remains relatively quiet, but hopefully Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif are just the beginning of a new range of voices.
A film version has recently been released, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber and Riz Ahmed in the title role. The film has not been made with literal faithfulness to the book in mind but has been inflated with additional material. Some of this has been done with input from the author. The book is after all, too short to provide enough story for a major-release film and is told in a style that is problematic to replicate. In doing so I expect the film loses the advantages the book has in being succinct.
It probably loses more as the ambiguity of the novel is lost due to the characters of the American in Lahore and Erica have been better defined for the movie. The Erica character (Kate Hudson) has been re-imagined as director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair) rightfully describes the Erica of the novel as coming across like a metaphor rather than a flesh and blood person. But Kate Hudson is too old to play Erica for my mind. We know she can play the bohemian flirt the innocent boy can’t help but fall for, but Almost Famous was a long time ago.
I won’t be rushing to see the film in the cinema but may wait for the rental release.
While I am not convinced that The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Booker Prize Shortlist-worthy, it is a very good, entertaining read. Short enough to be read in an undisturbed afternoon and powerful enough to provoke thoughts long after it has been shelved. While it does not explore the issues and themes in any depth and the structure and characters are a little contrived, the story has more to it than may appear on a first reading and Hamid remains a writer to watch.