Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Given the brouhaha regarding the length of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (is it a novel? is it not?) Mohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, seems to have escaped similar accusations, itself weighing in under two hundred pages. And like McEwan’s, it’s a slow burn affair that thrills throughout, although its conclusion frustrates more than disappoints.

Told as a dramatic monologue, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, has Pakistani national, Changez (Urdu for Genghis), telling the story of his life to a nervous American over the table of a Lahore café. Day gives way to night as Changez tells of his studies at Princeton and subsequent employment at Underwood Samson, a firm specialising in evaluating companies for potential acquisition. It’s a well paid job and, when not being professional, his private life is given over to the love of his life, Erica. But, when two planes hit the World Trade Center, Changez – as his name implies – changes.

Changez’s dialogue makes for easy and quick reading. He’s well spoken, has an extensive vocabulary, and an eye for detail, which you would expect given the nature of his job. The problem with this monologue approach is that to convey the current setting, whatever drama there is also has to come via speech, and Hamid’s novel lets itself down here. Chapters begin and close with references to the surroundings as a way of tying in with Changez’s story which, when paired with direct addressing to the unnamed American, strain the narrative.

How did I know you were American? No, not by the colour of your skin; we have a range of complexions in this country, and yours occurs often among the people of our northwest frontier. Nor was it your dress that gave you away; a European tourist could as easily have purchased in Des Moines your suit, with its single vent, and your button-down shirt. True, your hair, short-cropped, and your expansive chest – the chest, I would say, of a man who bench-presses regularly, and maxes out well above two-twenty-five – are typical of a certain type of American; but then again, sportsmen and soldiers of all nationalities tend to look alike. Instead it was your bearing that allowed me to identify you, and I do not mean that as an insult, for I see your face has hardened, but merely as an observation.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a superficial novel, telling its story and lacking depth. Sure, it offers up some food for thought regarding American foreign policy when Changez talks of clashes around Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India but there’s not much else to take away. Changez’s passage from high-flying businessman to radical happens with ease and is somewhat unconvincing, being without much, if any, internal conflict over the two nations on which his life straddles . The most interesting part for me was the character of Erica, her name taken from America, who, like said country, initially accepts him only to distance herself and remain rapt in the past.

There’s not much mileage to be had from Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist although it is, for the most part, a well-written affair. Despite the occasional low (scene dressing, mostly) the narrative is well told and consistent. There’s cultural texture as Changez offers advice on what to eat and drink in Lahore, explains peoples’ actions around them, but ultimately he fails to explain himself before the novel ends abruptly leaving the reader to fill in their own blanks which I was reluctant to do as it took the fun out of fundamentalist.

August 31, 2007

11 responses to Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

  1. jem said:

    Good point about the length of the novel, and it not receiving the same criticism as McEwan.

    I agree with your review. Reading it was a pleasant enough way to spend a few hours, but a few days on and I’m not left with much to remember. I also thought the Erica stuff was the most accomplished.

    I cant help but wonder if this didnt make the longlist just because 9/11 stuff is still topical.

  2. Victoria said:

    I agree that the novel was superficial – it was devastatingly simplistic in its approach to terrorism and America’s response to it. I felt like I could have read the blurb and known everything there was to know about the depth and breadth of the plot. And I thought the ending was trying to be ‘clever’ but was ultimately naive.

    I think Jem has hit the nail on the head: ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ feels very much like the obligatory 9/11 novel.

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  5. steffee said:

    What happened to the above two comments? I see that on lots of blogs.

    It sounds very political. Not really my thing.

  6. Stewart said:

    It means the posts have been picked up by other sites and it’s linking them together. Let’s me know.

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  8. Aashish Kaul said:

    Not only is it a horror to call this book literature, it has been lifted straight off Murakami’s Norwegian Wood.

  9. Stewart said:

    I couldn’t possibly say, Aashish Kaul, having never read much Murakami. Well, only Dance Dance Dance, which I didn’t like much.

  10. Aashish said:

    the plot, the character of the girl, the visit to the asylum outside the city, even the suicide, are all there written with better skill. You must try reading Norwegian wood, I think you will like it, though one must read Murakami only in the early twenties, for after that he becomes unreadable and seems to impressed with himself.

    But your reviews are spot on in most cases.

    cheers
    a.

  11. Ano said:

    I disagree with Victoria who claimed that the book was ‘superficial’ and ‘devastatingly simplistic in its approach to terrorism and America’s response to it’.

    Unfortunately, its clear that most of the books themes and ideas had not reached Victoria like they had with me.
    I found the book dealt more with confusion of identity then anything else. Reading it a number of times, you pick up on different things each time and this theme gets stronger after each read.
    One would notice that his everyday life and relationships are reflective to the bigger picture. His relationship to the US and attitudes towards the US from Pakistan and vise versa. The novel is written as one long monologue which changes the feel of this book. As a reader you feel you are being spoken to directly, and are allowed room for your own thoughts to develop.
    This book was written with the intention to provoke thoughts. The title alone does this and contributes greatly to the ideas that come from reading this book.

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