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