Thursday 4 November 2010

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid was the Reading Group’s book for October.  I had previously listened to the novel as an audiobook, but decided to take advantage of this opportunity to experience it as a novel to be read.  I enjoyed both versions and as is often the case gained more from the second reading.  The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a deceptively simple little book.  But a lot happens in its 200 or so pages.
At one level this is a simple tale of how one well educated Muslim was at first seduced by everything American and then gradually came to reject the USA.  The Muslim in question is Changez, the narrator of the novel.  He is from Pakistan and managed to gain entry into Princetown University, one of the most prestigious and elitist universities in the USA.  There he graduates as one of the best and the brightest and immediately succeeds in getting a job with a firm of valuators.  All goes well at first, but after the attacks on 9/11, things begin to change.  Changez notices a change in the way Americans regard Muslims, and Changez himself begins to change his views about his work and about the USA.  Eventually he leaves his job and the USA and returns to Pakistan where he finds a job as a university lecturer.
This is the bare bones of the novel, though one of its many delights is the telling of the tale.  The whole novel is written as a conversation between Changez and an unnamed and unknown American.  They meet in the old part of Lahore, Changez’s home city.  The opening line is: “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?”   The rest of the novel is Changez’s conversation with this person, though we never hear him speak.  We only hear Changez’s side of the conversation.  A most intriguing device and as the day unfolds the tension rises as their conversation reaches its enigmatic conclusion.
The title of the novel is of course hardly an accidental choice.  What is fascinating is that in the novel the word fundamental is only used to describe the work of the valuating firm that Changez works for.  Their job is to examine the finances of companies over the world and seek out the fundamentals of the business.  In other words which bits, if any, can be made to make lots of money for their investors - irrespective of the social and personal damages this will cause.  Post 9\11 Changez comes to question the value of this work, especially in light of the way the USA mistreats Muslim countries.  The key turning point is reached when he is accused of being a modern day Janissary by a bookstore owner in Chile.  The Janissaries were young boys from Christian families who were taken from their families and brought up as Muslim soldiers whose sole duty was to protect the Ottoman Sultan.  They could only do this because they knew nothing about their own culture and peoples.  Changez comes to realize that in his current job he too has rejected his family and his Pakistani culture.  All to further the USA in its War of Terror against Muslim countries.
The novel can also be read as a more explicit allegory.  This seems to be the main explanation for the inclusion of Erica and Chris in the story.  Erica is a beautiful, but emotionally fragile young woman whom Changez meets as a student.  He falls in love with her, but she remains aloof most of the time and in time suffers a breakdown.  This is due to the death of her boyfriend Chris.  She never recovers from this loss, despite Changez’s best efforts to help her.  At one level a simple tale of rejected love, the key to this part of the novel is the names of the characters.  Erica can be regarded as representing America, as Erica is America, minus the first two letters Am.  While Chris, who never appears in the novel, can be seen as an amalgam of Christopher Colombus and Christ.  Chris thus represents traditional America -  white, European and Christian.  Into this comes Changez, whose name is the Urdu version of Genghis of Genghis Khan fame and notoriety.  The English spelling of the name of course makes it represent change.  So Changez can be seen to represent the prospect of a new virile future.  A future which of course Erica rejects, trapped as she is in the nostalgia of the past.
However you read the novel there is much to enjoy and appreciate.  And to think about.  For that is the real strength of the book.  It asks us to reconsider who are the real fundamentalists?

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