Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)

Published: Hamish Hamilton (2007)

Having mentioned the Man Booker Prize in my previous post, I now come to the first of my annual read through of the short list. And it is a good one too: I'd rank this a better than any of last year's short list, and probably as the best novel about how 9/11 has changed the world that I have yet read.

At a café in Lahore, a Pakistani man tells his story to a sinister Westerner: how he left his home to study at Princeton, took a prestigious job as a management consultant in Manhattan, fell in love with an American girl; and became a figure of hate in the streets after the attacks, facing uneasy looks everywhere until returning to his home. The story is told just as it would be in such circumstances as a first person narrative with the odd interruption (to order food, or comment on passers by). It is a conversation, even though we only hear the words of one participant. This is really convincing, and gives the story an intimate quality beyond that gained from just the use of the first person perspective.

In some ways, The Reluctant Fundamentalist reads like a first novel, particularly given the parallels with Hamid's own life as evidenced by the biographical details on the book jacket. However, it is in fact his second, and there are deeper possibilities in the construction of the novel than the simple use of autobiographical elements. To Hamid's protagonist, America still seems to be the land of plenty, where his intellectual gifts receive the rewards he deserves; but it is never somewhere to which he is emotionally attached: his girlfriend is too unstable, the affection he has for New York is closely connected to the Pakistani element in the cosmopolitan city (the taxi drivers speak Urdu, and he can live near a café which service authentic cuisine from his home). In other words, he fails the infamous "cricket test". His outsider status goes the other way too: there are just two people in America who seem to care for him at all: a colleague, and their boss. Even there, it just leads to a handshake and an offer of a drink when he leaves the company, which is contrased with the general fear and loathing that his "Arabic" features generate in everybody else.

There are nice small touches, such as the first mention of fundamentals, which comes from the management consultancy: "focus on the fundamentals" is described as the company's guiding principle. The reader is left to decide the implications of this for him or herself. Similarly, given the reaction caused by the narrator's appearance in New York, the reader is aware that the Western man in the Lahore café fits the stereotyped appearance of a CIA agent, just as the narrator's appearance is that of an Islamic fundamentalist. Just because he wears a black suit which bulges in places that might cover a hidden holster, doesn't mean that he is an agent. If nothing else, the message of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is that appearances can be deceptive.

While the style of the writing is deliberately anti-rhetorical, there are clearly rhetorical elements. Just how much is not clear (and it is another issue that readers can decide for themselves): the narrator could be almost entirely truthful, or almost completely mendacious, or anything in between. However, taken at face value, his story is a gentle criticism of extremism, whether Islamic, capitalist, or just plain xenophobic.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a compelling story, a mature reflection on the times in which we live - and may well turn out to be the classic novel of the aftermath of 9/11.

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