[*Note to readers: I use the word America throughout because to use United States would shift the perspective of the book]
Hamid’s protagonist, Changez, was in many ways a reflection of the author himself: both were the Pakistani-born, stellar products of American Ivy League academia who upon graduation had been quickly recruited by ferocious and competitive American consulting firms.
By July 2001, Hamid had finished his first draft. The title he had chosen for his book was The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
And then, just two months later, the attacks of September 11th occurred, and Hamid had to return to his novel and adapt it to a post 9/11 world. This took six more years. The novel was eventually published in 2007.
I think it’s important to know this, because The Reluctant Fundamentalist is often said by critics to pivot on a smile, or more fairly, on a specific moment which occurs half way into the novel:
“The following evening was supposed to be our last in Manila. I was in my room, packing my things. I turned on the television and saw what at first I took to be a film. But as I continued to watch, I realized that it was not fiction but news. I stared as one―and then the other―of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.”
Abhorrent words to be sure. Perhaps even brazen, though honest within the context of the story, and requiring an explanation. But not originally planned. In fact, it’s rather extraordinary how seamlessly this transformative and tragic historical moment was eventually woven into the novel. Hamid the writer adapted, as did the post-9/11 world.
(Hamid has since expressed in an interview that the symbolism of Changez’s smile comes from “a sense of the US as the class bully“)
By fate as well as by design, The Reluctant Fundamentalist provokes the reader.
To begin with, there is the voice. It belongs to Changez, and in a three to four hour span―which is also the time it takes the reader to get through the short novel―Changez narrates the story of his graduation from Princeton and his rapid rise through the privileged ranks of corporate finance at Underwood Samson; of his failed love affair with patrician and melancholy Erica who lives in New York’s Upper East Side; and of the growing disenchantment that eventually leads him back home, to Lahore, Pakistan, and to the terrace of the café in the Old Anarkali district where the action takes place.
He will say all of this to the stranger at his table, who never speaks, and about whom we know virtually nothing, except that he is an American. He, like the reader, receives Changez’ story.
In a fascinating discussion of the book available in the BBC’s radio archives, the author explains that through the device of the dramatic monologue “The reader becomes aware of the reader’s own feelings about things.”
This was certainly true for me, and its effect was heightened, I think, by the fact that Changez speaks in a very formal tone, which the author describes as purposefully antique: the type of speech that is the product of elite schools in Pakistan, but is not usual; that comes from the past and also captures the stereotypes of Islam.
“Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America.”
Such a disquieting opening passage.
Changez’ voice is so elegant and old world that we forget that he is just twenty-one years old at the time of his hiring as an analyst by Underwood Samson, and still only twenty-two when he decides to walk away from it all.
I think that Changez’ age matters in this story.
The 21 year-old boy-man who exits Princeton and dives into the shark pool at Underwood Samson―eager to please and eager to belong―already conditioned by his education to believe, utterly, in the American dream of self-made competitive success, is as gung-ho as they get. He is a true believer.
For him, Underwood Samson is the embodiment of the systematic pragmatism, the professionalism and the efficiency that underpin America’s success in so many fields.
“Focus on the fundamentals. This was Underwood Samson’s guiding principle, drilled into us since our first day at work. It mandated a single-minded attention to financial detail, teasing out the true nature of those drivers that determine an asset’s value. And that was precisely what I continued to do, more often than not with both skill and enthusiasm. Because to be perfectly honest, sir, the compassionate pangs I felt for soon-to-be-redundant workers were not overwhelming in their frequency; our job required a degree of commitment that left one with rather limited time for such distractions”.
The military parallels are so easily drawn here: focus, assets, limited distractions, soon-to-be redundant workers (the collateral damage of economic competition), and few compassionate pangs. Changez is a good soldier.
And then, as his love for Erica goes essentially unrequited―she is clinically depressed through most of the narrative, and grieving the death of the love of her life (she has no love to give)―and as the first inklings of disillusionment and dissatisfaction creep into his life, the attack on the Twin Towers occurs, provoking a seismic shift that ripples through North America and Asia, and through Changez’ life, acting like an accelerant on a process of personal transformation that is already irreversible.
During the months that follow, Changez is immersed in his work, but also in the endless loops of media coverage of the US war against Afghanistan―Pakistan’s neighbour―with its night bombings. Changez travels home to Lahore for a visit, and returns to New York two weeks later with a full beard.
To the unnamed man sitting with him in the Lahore café, Changez explains:
“It was, perhaps, a form of protest on my part, a symbol of my identity, or perhaps I sought to remind myself of the reality I had just left behind; I do not now recall my precise motivations. I know only that I did not wish to blend in with the army of clean-shaven youngsters who were my coworkers, and that inside me, for multiple reasons, I was deeply angry.”
Changez’ tone is often preachy after this, as the author provides his young protagonist with a soapbox from which to express his politically-charged views and perhaps more importantly, his inner conflict.
“My blinders were coming off,” he says, “and I was dazzled and rendered immobile by the sudden broadening of my arc of vision.”
From this point on, the novel becomes increasingly polemic and, I suppose, true to the experience of a young, intellectual narrator torn between Pakistan and America, between New York and Lahore, and troubled by the shameful disparity between them. He both admires and resents America’s economic dominance and role in the world, and he bridles at the condescension which frames so much of America’s outlook toward Pakistan. He speaks of the rolling power blackouts, called “load shedding”, that are so common in Pakistan (particularly in winter), and of his family house which, with its dated furniture, has come to appear shabby and gloomy. He reminds the unnamed man that:
“[…] we were not always burdened by debt, dependent on foreign aid handouts; in the stories we tell of ourselves we were not the crazed and destitute radicals you see on your television channels but rather saints and poets and ―yes―conquering kings. We built the Royal Mosque and the Shalimar Gardens in this city, and we built the Lahore Fort and its mighty walls and wide ramp for our battle-elephants. And we did these things when your country was still a collection of thirteen small colonies, gnawing away at the edge of a continent.”
As I read this, I wondered who was really speaking: Changez or Mohsin Hamid?
This is politics without religion. Changez eschews it in his narration, because the author has chosen to remove it from his story.
A strong and unanticipated choice, given the book’s title.
In his chat on BBC Radio, Hamid reveals that the fundamentalism of the title relates to what Changez learns during his time valuing companies, looking at the fundamentals of business.
For the author, fundamentalisms of every stripe imply “having a pre-existing definition of what gives value”, and that fundamentalism requires the absence of empathy: economic, religious, spiritual.
The author also reveals that his choice of the name Changez has nothing to do with change (in English or French), but that it is in fact the Urdu form of Genghis. A violent name, certainly. The name of a warrior, but not a warrior for Islam, as Genghis Khan proceeded from Central Asia to effectively wipe out the Eastern Muslim civilisation that spread from Iran to Pakistan and India, described by the author as an advanced, pre-Renaissance civilisation obliterated by a marauding horde.
In fact, the few religious references found are largely ironic.
In the latter part of the novel, while in Valparaiso Chile, when Changez’ doubts are tormenting him, he is reminded by Juan Bautista―an editor about to be made redundant―that he is like the janissaries of the Ottomans:
“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 civilizations, so they had nothing else to turn to.”
Still in Valparaiso, Changez observes that:
“In this―Valparaiso’s former aspirations to grandeur―I was reminded of Lahore and of that saying, so evocative in our language: the ruins proclaim that the building was once beautiful.”
Words that made me wonder whether I was meant to think of Lahore, of Pakistan, of New York City since 9/11, or of civilization in the 21st century.
In 2015, when words like meritocracy and plutocracy have been shown to be parallel roads to economic inequality (see Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century), and when radicalization and rendition have entered the popular psyche and planted seeds of anxiety and fear, Mohsin Hamid’s belief that he has “written a book that gives no certainties but wants to engage our empathy” seems more relevant and important than ever, and the novel’s disturbing ending, even more open to speculation.
Here’s to all of the book clubs that have taken up the challenge of reading and discussing this unassuming yet daring novel.
“The ruins proclaim that the building was once beautiful”