In today’s often polarized and hyper-partisan environment conservatives will be tempted to simply write off Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist as just another anti-American screed masquerading as fiction. Those on the opposite end may want to label it in a similar fashion but approve of the politics. That would be a mistake. Yes, the book does contain anti-American sentiment and passages that are, to my mind, rather banal leftist complaints about the xenophobic and destructive nature of the American â€œempire.â€ But to categorize this book as simply a political rant dressed-up as art is to deny both its aesthetic merit and the cultural insights it might offer.
Fundamentalist takes the unique form of an extended monologue – one half of a conversation really – given by the central character, a Pakistani man named Changez, to an unnamed American in a Lahore outdoor cafe. Changez recognizes the man as an American and, after recommending a spot for tea, begins to tell the stranger of his own experience in America and the events that led to his return to Pakistan.
There is a great deal of ambiguity involved as Changes relates his story: exactly who is the American and why is he in Pakistan? There is a sense of foreboding surrounding the stranger; a peculiar bulge is noted under his sport coat and he admits to experience with violence and perhaps even war. Does he mean harm to Changez – has he come to Pakistan to seek him out? Hamid never directly reveals the answers; even the ending is ambiguous. Instead, the reader is left to come to his own conclusions about what is happening and why.
This one sided conversation is a risky and difficult format to pull off, but Hamid succeeds for the most part. The story moves at a good pace and Changez/Hamid proves to be an adept storyteller. The tension builds steadily but Hamid smoothly uses the mundane interruptions at the cafe (the waiter taking their orders, bringing food, drinks, desert, the activities of passersby, the darkening evening, etc.) to allow the reader to catch their breath.
Changez’s story is a sort of rags to riches to rags again tale. Immigrant from a well respected – but economically deteriorating – family gets accepted to Princeton and parlays that into a job at a famous valuation firm in New York City and entering the high pressure world of international finance. Along the way, he falls for a beautiful, but troubled, young American from a wealthy family. His future seems bright and exciting.
The events September 11, however, radically alter his perceptions and feelings about his adopted home and his place in the world. He finds himself resentful of the power and influence of America; and of what seems like the powerlessness of his ancient and once proud nation. He is uncomfortable being viewed as a part of the Western elite rather than as a loyal citizen of his homeland. Post 9/11 New York seems more inwardly focused, less cosmopolitan, as Americans rally together in response to the tragedy.
In a dramatic section, Changez admits that his initial reaction to the events of that day wasn’t horror at the tragedy but surprised admiration. He admits to being caught up in the “symbolism of it all” and pleased about the fact that “someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.”
This startling admission is sure to turn some off, but Changez does not seek to completely justify his initial reaction and admits that it was “uncharitable” even “inhumane.” He isn’t offering an argument that America deserved the events of that day so much as being brutally honest about his instinctive response.
It is a mistake, in my opinion, to view Changez as simply a voice for Hamid – as just an editorial instrument. Changez is seeking to come to terms with what he feels and with his place in the world. And we take that journey with him. Hamid is trying to imaginatively portray what it might be like to be an outsider despite having an Ivy League education and a high paying corporate job in New York; about how that experience might push and pull on oneâ€™s loyalties. Are there autobiographical elements and editorial ones as well? Yes, but it is not simply that.
Which is what, in addition to the simple pleasure of a well-crafted story, is what makes this book interesting and worthwhile: it has a complexity and depth to it beyond just run of the mill anti-Americanism.
There are several themes that run throughout the work. One is the feeling touched on above, that American culture and its economy slyly recruits the brightest from around the world to, in effect, become “Janissaries” young Christian boys captured and trained to be soldiers of the Sultan for the American empire. Changez is repulsed by the idea that he has been co-opted to undermine the interests of his countrymen, neighbors, and fellow Muslims; that he is fighting for the powerful against the powerless. Again, you don’t have to agree with this portrayal to recognize that it might reflect real, and powerful, sentiments. Hamid skillfully describes the ideas and emotions that inform and shape Changez’s world.
A motivating source for this viewpoint is resentment. Throughout the narrative Changez notes how he feels resentful about the role of America in the world and the struggles of his homeland. Not only has America over-taken the once magnificent civilizations of the Near East, but also countries as lowly as the Philippines seem to be passing Pakistan by.
This marginalization creates bitterness and resentment because it causes a loss of independence and freedom. The very real threat of nuclear war hangs over Pakistan and, despite an alliance with America, it faces this threat alone; some even suspect America of favoring India. America seems to have all the power and little loyalty.
Changez feels this viscerally. Despite all that America has allowed him to gain – an education, a successful career, and the delights of New York City – he can’t suppress this resentment.
Another interesting theme is the danger of nostalgia. Changez feels that America is giving into a nostalgic yearning for a simpler time and war (WW II) when there were clear demons to find and destroy and a conclusive victory to be achieved. And as a result seeking a false unity based on an “us” versus “them” mentality.
This theme is mirrored in his relationship with Erica. Changez becomes infatuated with Erica during a trip to the Greece at the end of his time at Princeton. Erica, a beautiful young woman from a wealthy New York family, lost her closest childhood friend, and first love, to cancer and is struggling to overcome this tragedy. Rather than face the world without her friend she is slowly retreating into her own mind and the memories of this idealized time in her life. Changez clearly wants to move the relationship beyond friendship and can’t understand why she refuses to let go of the past.
These undercurrents and emotions soon overtake Changez and begin a process that will lead him back to Pakistan as the reluctant fundamentalist of the title. In a real sense, he no longer wants to feel comfortable in American and so find plenty of reasons not to. While visiting Pakistan he grows a beard and when he returns to New York he refuses to shave it and feels vindicated when it causes friction at work and suspicion from strangers. He begins to doubt the value of his work and falls into a funk. No longer willing to do his job he is fired.
These emotions and ideas lead him to speak out against American when he returns home and he develops something of a reputation of a troublemaker. As Changez winds his story down the tension is at its height: are these two men mortal enemies or just strangers trying to overcome decades of cultural suspicion and mistrust? The ending leaves the reader on this cliff with only his own perspective to guide him.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist isn’t a perfect work by any stretch of the imagination. The relationship between Changez and Erica starts out interestingly enough, but fizzles out in the last half of the book. Changez’s disillusion with American works to a degree but how he goes from deciding not to work for a powerful American company to potentially recruiting terrorists, or at least potential terrorists, is a little thin.
And of course, as I mentioned above, much of the anti-American sentiment is banal boilerplate. Changez compares the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq; speaks of America being full of “self-righteous rage”; or American’s being unwilling to think of the pain of others; of retreating into “myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiorit”; describes American foreign policy as “tantrums”; etc. There is nothing here you wouldn’t read in hundreds of blogs and dozens of European newspapers.
It isn’t so much that I disagree with it – and I do with most of it – but that it is rather boring and lacks an emotional connection to the character. The emotion works much better when it is on a historical or almost civilization scale. The US is the power that dominates the world while Pakistan is a backwater, only a concern because of its nuclear capability and the radicals who make the region their home. Change, argues Changez’s boss, only moves in one direction and it seems to have passed Pakistan by.
In the end, Changez chooses to return and fight America because to do otherwise would be to change his identity and his loyalty. The Bush Doctrine states that in the war on terror you are either with us or against us. Changez faces this challenge and chooses against.
Explicitly didactic fiction is all to often a failure because it is forced and lacks aesthetic value. Hamid succeeds, to the degree that he does, because he seeks to create a compelling character albeit one represents or communicates the ideas, experiences, and emotions of a culture rather than simply create a mouthpiece for political slogans. It is an interesting attempt to tell an interesting story and mirror the clash of worldviews that underlies much of our political debate. Your political perspective, or cultural one, may determine how you react but I found The Reluctant Fundamentalist to an entertaining and though provoking read.
For other perspectives check out this post.