I had planned to read The Reluctant Fundamentalist out of sheer curiosity as to what made the character a reluctant fundamentalist and how that would manifest itself. On reading the book, I was delighted by the nuance and subtlety underlying the title of the book.
Mohsin Hamid's story is beautifully written and told by Changez, the main character and first person narrator whom some might consider unreliable, given the technique adopted by Hamid. The setting is Anarkali a district in Lahore, Pakistan. Changez, who has had the benefit of an Ivy League College education and subsequently employment with a trouble shooting company, meets an American, befriends him and over dinner Changez tells the story of his experience in America. Everything is seen through the eyes of Changez, even the tone and atmosphere of the story is created by him.
Superfically, it could be argued that the premise on which the novel is based is implausible. Two strangers meet for the first time and one allows the other to pour out his soul. Yet one of the great achievements of Hamid is that he was able to draw me into Changez's musings. The reader easily becomes a substitute for the American and is keen to listen to Changez. For me it was this that made the primise of the novel plausible. I don't know how Hamid did it but it is a great artistic achievement.
Hamid's technique is not new but it was certainly daring and risky to narrate the story in this manner, solely through the eyes of Changez. The techinque is reminiscence of that found in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness where Chalie Marlow, a first person narrator, spins a yarn to companions about his seafaring days. Like Marlow's story, I found Changez's story deeply touching.
The narrator's voice is calm, subtle, and nuanced - notice that the text is littered with parenthesis. Through this style Hamid allows Changez to reveal more about himself and tease out more information from the American than the bear bones of the text at first suggest. This was a clever use of tone and style.
The book is partly about the journeys people take, meet and form relationships with other people from different cultures, attempt to integrate and then become something new. This theme is summed up in a brief Proustian like passage thus: "Such journeys have convinced me that it is not always possible to restore one's boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship: try as we might, we cannot reconstitue ourselves as the autonomous beings we previously imagined ourselves to be. Something of us is now outside, and something of the outside is now within us."
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is also a mature and sober exploration of the impact of 9/11 on a Muslim 'outsider' desperately trying to find a place in American life. Through Changez's character, and his response to 9/11, Hamid shows that, as an outsider, despite efforts to integrate into another culture there might just be something deep within our psyche that, if only on a symbolic level, makes us hanker towards nationalism and narrow minded culture.
This is also a heart rending story. Changez is so desperate to fit into American life that he was prepared to suffer the foibles of unrequited love. However, of more interest to me is the story behind the person that Changez dotes upon. Erica's story serves as an acute counterpoint to Changez's. Like Changez, Erica is trying to redefine herself. For Erica the need to redefine herself is triggered by the loss of her childhood love, Chris, and a longing for things to be as they were. It stikes me that what Hamid has done with these two characters is, in different ways, highlight the human need for love and belonging. Given that this is a very short novel, the way Hamid goes about showing this human need and the fact that he pulls it off is a remarkable achievement.
Another dominant theme of the book is the notion of change and renewal - note the symbolism of the narrator's name, Changez and his professional role as an analyst and company trouble shooter. It asks how do we cope with and manage one of the inevitable features of life? Hamid cleverly explores change against the backdrop of micro events, eg, the personal life changing journeys undertaken by Changez and Erica, and also Macro events eg, the development of a post 9/11 world, the conflict between Pakistan and India and America's geo-political world dominance.
Incidentally, for those who might think that the title of novel refers simply to Muslim Fundamentalism you would be wrong. Hamid subtly explores the word fundamentalist in order to deconstruct it and remind us of its broader meaning and applicaion. One thing that emerges is that Changez is no reluctant Muslim fundamentalist rather it is in his chosen career that he behaves as a fundamentalist. The change he imposes upon organizations ultimately damages lives. Changez has his epiphany on an assignment in Chile when he meets the chief of a publishing company, Juan-Bautista. For a number of reasons Changez becomes disillusioned with his role and he realises that he is a reluctant fundamentalist. He tells us: "All I knew was that my days of focusing on fundamentals were done".
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a book that explores what we have in common as human beings and seeks to celebrate it. For such a short book Mohsin Hamid has pulled off a towering achievement. It deserved to be shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker prize and perhaps it should have won it. Please read the novel and be amazed by Hamid's achievement.
PS: For all of us expatriate British citizens let Changez's story be a reminder of our precarious status.