By Mohsin Hamid; @ 2007, Harcourt Books; 184 pages.
It is late afternoon, and you are an American on the streets of Lahore, Pakistan. Perhaps you are lost. Maybe you are seeking the perfect cup of tea. That might be your excuse if anyone should ask. A Pakistani man approaches you.
“Excuse me,” he says. He wants to know if he may be of some assistance. “Do not be frightened by my beard,” he says. He tells you that he is a lover of America, and you appear to be on a mission.
Anyone who has ever been assailed by kindness, trapped in a conversation or situation on the pretense of maintaining good manners can relate to the dynamics constructed by Mohsin Hamid in the Reluctant Fundamentalist. Page one hooks the reader by offering an intriguing interpersonal dynamic. Who is our narrator? Is he an ordinary man or out to do someone harm? Who is he addressing? Is his American conversant an innocent tourist, a businessman, or a spy?
As readers, we can only eavesdrop on the conversation from the narrator’s point of view. No matter, because it appears that the narrator, Changez, is happy to do most of the talking. Changez escorts the American to a café where they can have a perfect cup of tea. Changez begins to tell the story of his time in America. Why does Changez need to tell this story? Why is tonight a “night of some importance”? Will this be the American’s last meal?
The story of Changez in America begins around the time of his graduation from Princeton. To celebrate, he goes on a trip to Greece with a group of Americans. In Greece, he falls in love with Erica, an American girl his group. Changez takes the relationship slowly. He wants more, even marriage, but there is something holding Erica back.
Changez soon lands a coveted position at an American valuation company called Underwood Samson. At 22, he is making $80,000 a year. It is intense work, but after three years, Changez can depend on acceptance to Harvard Business School. At Underwood Samson, success requires employees to focus on the “fundamentals.” Only the fundamentals of companies are acceptable measures to determine their value. Underwood Samson’s assessments often result in job losses, and empathy for employees can only impair the assessment. Changez excels at his work. He focuses on the fundamentals.
Shortly after Changez is hired, the terrorist attacks of September 11 compel him to re-evaluate his identity. He goes home to Pakistan to see his family. Nuclear tensions are high between India and Pakistan after September 11, and Changez is concerned war will break out between the two countries. He feels guilty about returning to his job in New York instead of staying with his family through this crisis. On his flight back to the United States, he notes:
I found it ironic; children and the elderly were meant to be sent away from impending battles, but in our case it was the fittest and brightest who were leaving, those who in the past would have been most expected to remain. I was filled with such contempt for myself…
After Changez returns to the United States, he sees things differently. He is no longer eager to please his employer. He becomes defiant and stops shaving his beard. People mistake him for a terrorist. He is angry and begins to realize that something is wrong with Erica.
As afternoon becomes evening, and evening turns into night, Changez and the American eat at the café. The courses of their meal, served by a large, ominous waiter, pace the story. Eventually, it becomes clear why Changez gave up his career in the United States and returned to Pakistan.
Mohsin Hamid is a master of psychological introspection. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is filled with unexpected developments and metaphors. Questions arise, such as: How should we make decisions about our world? and Is it possible to separate the fundamentals from the big picture? Goals and aspirations are weighed against loyalties and ways of seeing the world. Do Changez’s experiences in the United States lead him to embrace religious fundamentalism once he returns home? The reader isn’t sure. This creates great suspense.
Because of Changez’s journey and knowing what he has decided to give up, the reader expects Changez to act decisively. During dinner, Changez tells the American, “Here we are not squeamish when it comes to facing the consequences of our desire.” What is the result of this one-way baring of souls? What will happen after dinner?
The Reluctant Fundamentalist illustrates the difficulties encountered when trying to bridge the gap that has been widened by cultural distrust. When fear is a factor for both sides, one can only hope it is not too late.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Moshin Hamid’s second novel. His first novel, Moth Smoke, won a Betty Trask award and was a PEN/Hemingway Award finalist.
————–The BBC World Book Club interviewed Mohsid Hamid about the Reluctant Fundamentalist. You can listen to that interview here: