The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid)

Green cover crescent and star***

We discussed this in the ‘Equal Writes’ book group , and I was more sceptical than most. As far as I can estimate, the book contains 50,000 words or so, so it’s a novella tricked out to look more-or-less like a novel (184 pages in the US edition).

For a novella, the structure is quite complex: we have  one side of an evening’s conversation between Changez (the narrator) and an unidentified American, which frames the story of how Changez set off for America full of hope and ambition and returned disillusioned after 9/11; at the centre of this narrative there is Changez’s love affair with Erica, an upper-class American girl and coeval of his at Princeton.

And that’s where it gets really schematic: Erica (I am Erica–I, America) is still in love with Chris (Christopher Columbus, maybe) who she had known since early childhood and who died very young of lung cancer without ever having smoked. Chris was a good-looking boy with Old World appeal and a collection of European comic books, so let’s say he symbolises the European inheritance which Erica is unable to turn away from to embrace the new represented by Changez; after a night of love where Erica pretends that Changez is Chris, she slips back into mental illness and (apparently) commits suicide by throwing herself in the Hudson River.  So what’s this lung cancer thing with Chris?  My only explanation is the observation that while Americans grow tobacco they don’t smoke it, so this lung cancer reflects how America has killed Europe (in terms of power, for instance).  Or maybe the author just felt like it!

Among other improbabilities, Erica is a writer whose first book just out of college has been accepted by a publisher (or just agent?) We learn that this book ‘is more of a novella than a novel. It leaves space for your thoughts to echo.’

Apart from Erica, Changez’s story is that he is from a downwardly-mobile upper-class family in Lahore and comes to the USA determined to restore his fortunes. After graduating brilliantly from Princeton, he eagerly seeks out a job at Underwood Samson (Uncle Sam!), a firm whose business it is to ruthlessly value companies and whose motto is ‘Focus on the fundamentals’.

Changez finds his identification with (the) US faltering after a business trip to Manila where he feels himself identified with the conquering American Other and the US’s paranoid and backward-looking reaction to 9/11.

In an attempt to save him from himself, the firm send him to Valparaiso to value a publishing company. There, the proprietor Juan-Bautista (must be Spanish for John the Baptist) enlightens Changez about his role as an American janissary (janissaries were elite troops of the Ottoman empire, taken from their Christian families at a young age–a strange thing for a Moslem Princeton graduate not to know) who fought to erase their own civilisation, leaving nothing else to turn to. Presumably this explains the name Changez (Urdu version of Genghis) as a destroyer of Moslem civilisation. (Or it could just be that he is the Changes that AmErica is unable to accept after her tragic loss–but this is a bit crude even for an allegory.)

So Changez returns to Pakistan and armed with an undergraduate degree and six month’s experience gets a job teaching at the local university (convincing, or what?) He becomes as it seems a moderate opponent of American power and after one of his students is disappeared, he condemns American readiness to kill people in other countries and frighten people far away in a TV interview, which extract gains some international exposure. And he grows a beard.

So we return to the evening in Lahore, where Changez first of all accosts the American, who then sits with his back to the wall, regularly texts ‘the company’ and may have a concealed weapon. But he is alarmed by the waiter and other surrounding men who Changez seems to know and look as though they mean to do him harm.

Changez tells us that not all Pakistanis are potential terrorists and not all Americans are undercover assassins, but of course Erica has already told us that this is an open ending that ‘leaves space for your thoughts to echo’.

And I was irritated!

This is the kind of clever-clever playing of formal games which normally appeals to me, but here there wasn’t enough of the gloss and bloom of surface realism to interest me in the first place.  And what does the title mean?–A fundamentalist is surely one who adheres to a particular, rigorist, interpretation of Islam, and any mention the name of Allah is carefully excluded here.  In fact, as I recall it nobody in Pakistan has a name apart from Changez–not his family, not his dog, not anybody.

Of course the clever indication that Changez did not want to ‘focus on the fundamentals’ for Uncle Sam has no doubt helped the book sell many copies–the American edition has a cover in green with a crescent moon and star punched out of it,  just to reinforce the message.  And the American edition has lots of what seem to be random errors in English: ‘treaded water’, ‘fair-haired [for blue-eyed] boy’, ‘the waiter will bring us more momentarily’ and so on…

The book is obviously meant to be about nostalgia–Changez comments how the US is returning to a fairytale past of generals and flags after 9/11, while Erica says that she loves it when he talks about Lahore, he seems so alive.  When Changez first visits Erica’s room, he sees a drawing by Chris of an island in a lake on an island in the sea, as it were an image of turning in on oneself, and at the end he reads her MS and it’s about a girl alone on an island making do.

In my end is my beginning, as we’re no doubt supposed to think…

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