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John Self 27th Apr 2007 13:54

Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
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.


sara 28th Apr 2007 22:59

Re: Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Well this is the review I put on my blog.
I feel so stupid.
I read this book and didn't notice that the female character is called Erica, as in America. Dur! And the main character is Changez. Le sigh.
Anyway, this is an interesting book that is highly thought provoking. It concerns a young Pakistani man who leaves his home country for an education at Princeton and a career in New York when snapped up by a prestigious company that require him to learn to assess other companies worth.
The story is told as one side of a conversation taking place in Lahore between Changez and an unknown American man as they share a meal.
The characters voice is polite, educated and somewhat formal. He relates his feelings at the wealthy salary he was paid, and the standard of living he witnessed. He contrasts this with his family and his home. He is at once seduced and repelled by the glamour and consumerism all around. He falls in love with Erica, but she can never be his, remaining firmly in love with her past. Geddit?
When the news of 9/11 unfolds on his news screen he smiles. A life altering reaction to the event.
It is a formally told tale with sufficient tension building as we wonder how Changez ended up back in Lahore, and what is going to happen when he finishes his oral history. I'm not sure that is as powerful as maybe it could have been, but the voice works plausibly and I enjoyed the confounding of my expectations."

I did think it was quite ok, it's a book I can damn with faint praise actually. I hoped that it would be much more than it is.

MisterHobgoblin 18th Aug 2007 12:08

Re: Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a short work – perhaps straying into the novella category – that takes the form of one side of a conversation over a Pakistani café table between a man, Changez, and an unvoiced American stranger.

Changez recites his life story – brought up in a family of fading wealth in Pakistan, studying with a prestigious scholarship at Princeton University, and working for a high-paying financial services company – Underwood Samson – in New York. Changez receives praise and opportunity as a reward for his brilliance until world events – the attacks on the World Trade Center and subsequent was and tension in Afghanistan and Pakistan lead him to disillusionment with the west. All this is juxtaposed with advice to the American stranger on menu choices and assurances of good intentions.

The trouble is, the novel lacks any real depth or substance. The narrative technique of interspersing straight biography with casual conversation started to get irritating and was, I suspect, a device to add bulk and texture to a thin narrative. The narrative, too, didn’t last long enough to explain how a man who had embraced Mammon with such enthusiasm should, over the space of a fortnight, be prepared to toss it all in for a life of uncertainty back in Pakistan. It’s not that such a change of heart is impossible, but it is unlikely enough to require some pretty deep explanation which was not on offer here.

And the ending, when it comes, is so ambiguous that it simply frustrates. Apparently Changez brought the USA to standstill – but without a plausible explanation of how he did it. And the encounter with the American is left hanging. How did the conversation end? Perhaps this was intended to add to the literary effect, but one wonders whether it was a case that Hamid had developed a storyline so far and didn’t know how to resolve it.

This is an easy, fast read and is not without some merits. The novel does cause one to question – briefly – how Muslims have been supposed to relate to the USA and its foreign policy in recent years. The title, too, raises a smile. The financial institution is supposed to have an ethos of concentrating on the fundamentals, and as Changez decides the world of high finance is not for him, he becomes a sort of reluctant fundamentalist in one sense and, perhaps, a more willing Fundamentalist in another sense. But overall, one is left feeling that the work could have been so much more with twice the number of pages and without the irritating mono-dialogue.


MisterHobgoblin 18th Aug 2007 12:11

Re: Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Originally Posted by sara (Post 61629)
I hoped that it would be much more than it is.

I should say that I wrote my review before reading others - I think it is interesting that Sara and I hit upon the exact same phrase.

Kimberley 20th Aug 2007 12:36

Re: Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
I've just finished this book. Again, I have to say, not a bad book, but not particularly interesting or skillful and I doubt it would have made the longlist had its subject matter not been so topical.

The main issue to me seems to be the reluctance of the fundamentalist. Was he? I don't think so. And I also didn't think there was any serious attempt made to understand why fundamentalism may have appealed to him, apart from the obvious disillusionment with Western corporate life (which must be fairly common) and a disappointed affection for the irritatingly named (sorry, Sara) Erica (I kept expecting her to say I Am Erica) who in turn has lost the love over her life, Chris. Jesus! -- or Columbus, I don't know. But it was hit-over-the-head-ingly obvious about those matters whilst avoiding the more subtle ones. I thought the structure was mildly interesting but can really only give it ***00 and leave feeling disappointed.

John Self 20th Aug 2007 12:55

Re: Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Would it be trite to suggest that the reluctance of his fundamentalism was really to do with the 'fundamentalism' of American capitalism? (doesn't one of his colleagues in Underwood Samson urge him to 'remember the fundamentals' or something like that?)

This seems to be a book on which we all agree. Good but not great?

Kimberley 20th Aug 2007 13:17

Re: Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
JS, I think it certainly tries to forge a connection between possible interpretations of the word fundamentalist but I don't think it works. For one thing, the narrator isn't reluctant to embrace his Western fundamentalist company. And I think that whole wow, I've got an expense account thing was dealt with in the Tom Cruise film The Firm (and presumably the book it was based on)a long time ago.

MisterHobgoblin 20th Aug 2007 13:26

Re: Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Originally Posted by John Self (Post 71786)
This seems to be a book on which we all agree. Good but not great?

Is that using the Gerry Anderson scale?

For those not in the know, each week a member of the public would turn up to sing on Gerry Anderson's interminable chat show that ran every Friday night on BBC1 NI in the 1990s. This section, known as the Punters' Choice, would be billed as the Singing Brickie or the Strumming Plasterer. Members of the public could phone up to say whether they thought the performer was Good, Great or Excellent. The performer would then go away and record a CD that they would try to flog at the Auld Lammas Fair or Nutts Corner.

John Self 20th Aug 2007 13:51

Re: Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Originally Posted by MrHG
For those not in the know

Including me!

MisterHobgoblin 22nd Aug 2007 12:24

Re: Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Originally Posted by John Self (Post 71798)
Including me!

I guess you must have been too busy watching Kelly on UTV. I can picture you spending your Friday evenings looking forward to Kelly's Koin Game.

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