Sunday, November 16, 2008

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid

Year of publication: 2007
Genre: novel
Setting and Time: New York, Pakistan, Greece and Chile, 2001
Themes: fundamentalism, politics, life, America, love, immigrant experience

Shortlisted for the Booker prize 2007

About the author: Mohsin Hamid was born in Pakistan in 1971, but he spent part of his childhood in the United States where his father was enrolled in a PhD programme. He then went back to Pakistan but had his education in the United States (Princeton and Harvard Law School). He worked as a management consultant in the USA and then as a freelance journalist in Lahore. His first novel, Moth Smoke, was published in 2000 and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is his second novel to date.

Plot: Changez, a Pakistani man who from a once wealthy family in Lahore, experiences his own version of the American Dream when his talent and his Princeton scholarship lead him to a well-paid job in the world of New York finance and to a relationship with Erica, a beautiful American girl. Changez relates in a conservation with an American traveller in Lahore how he never felt entirely at ease in America and how the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the subsequent repercussions - both political and personal - roused him from his American Dream.

Some thoughts: The Pakistani narrator, Changez, invites an American man to have dinner with him in Lahore. He begins to tell his story, which begins a few months before 9/11 and ends a few months after the tragedy of the Twin Towers. It is more a monologue than a conversation between Changez and the unnamed American man who never utters a word. Honestly, I did not really understand this expedient, apart from the fact that it serves the purpose by the end of the book and The New York Times says that it gives the tale “an Arabian-nights urgency” which is quite appropriate (the end of the story may mean the death of the teller). I was also wondering if the title is ironic or not, because the main character cannot be exactly called fundamentalist, and certainly not a reluctant one, either. Karen Olsson, always from The New York Times, puts it in this way: “It seems that Hamid would have us understand the novel’s title ironically. We are prodded to question whether every critic of America in a Muslim country should be labeled a fundamentalist, or whether the term more accurately describes the capitalists of the American upper class. Yet these queries seem blunter and less interesting than the novel itself, in which the fundamentalist, and potential assassin, may be sitting on either side of the table.” Mmmmmh, mumble mumble…
This is mostly a novel about the enchantment and disillusionment of expatriates with America. I particularly liked the reference to the janissaries of the Ottoman empire, who were trained to fight against their own people. Changez feels like one of them, working for a country that “hates” Muslims, or Arabs as they say in America (he’s not one of them, but they don’t know!). After 9/11, America became more suspicious of every Muslim person and invaded what Changez had always considered a friend country of Pakistan, Afghanistan.
Hamid, who was also educated at Princeton and worked in the finance business, seems to share Changez’s sudden hate for America, their way of life and its change after 9/11. While I can understand Changez’s political motivations for leaving America, I don’t understand the need to put a love story in the novel: it only confuses the reader. Did Changez leave America also because he was let down by his relationship with Erica? I read in a review from The Guardian that the love story might be a metaphor for America (Am-Erica) that doesn’t want to change (Change-z) and leave behind its European (Chris-tian) past. Uh? Ok, I didn’t get it, I’m sorry. Now I know, but I’m not thrilled by the news.
What keeps you reading, however, is a buzzing question in you head: why did Changez become a “fundamentalist” and why did he grow a beard and left his privileged job in Manhattan in order to return to Pakistan? You will never get a clear-cut answer. This is an open ending, like it or not.
In conclusion, I liked the novel but I was a bit confused at the end. I will wait for Hamid’s next work to see if his writing improves.


  1. clap clap clap!
    excellent review (from my point of view...).

    i've read the book in italian 'cause i found it on NY Times' "100 books of the year" list...
    i expected a lot more from this novel and in the end i was sort of deceived. i know it is my problem, but i've never liked "open endings"...

    actually it is a nice book, one that you read in a couple of days 'cause you are thrilled to capture changez' secret, but, like, i was a bit confused too.
    also, i was wondering about the romance and the way The Guardian puts it totally makes sense, but i didn't get it while reading the book.
    my conclusion: nice book (i especially liked the way he described lahore and the misterious atmosphere of the encounter between changez and the american -is he a hired killer? a spy? a civilian? we don't know really...), but it does not help understanding the reasons of a muslim's hate towards the us.

    thanks a lot for your review!
    big hugs


  2. Yes, I think that Changez's hate for America is a stereotype: not all Muslim people "must" hate America because of some of its policies and prejudice towards them.
    Nonetheless, it was a nice book. Maybe Hamid will refine his style and narration skills in a few years' time.

  3. For having produced such a highly-regarded work overall in terms of the mainstream media, Hamid seems to have drawn more than his share of mixed reviews from the book blogging world. I'd be interested in hearing whether or not you agree with this and, if so, whether you think the criticisms might stem more from his theme or from his writing. In any event, "brava" for another thoughtful piece of writing of your own!

  4. Thanks for the compliments again, I'm blushing.
    According to me, the mixed reviews of the blogging world could be related to his simplifications (America = bad) if you've read a lot of reviews from American people. Maybe people from other parts of the world, like the middle east or even africa, don't see it as a flaw. His writing is ok, but there are some things I didn't like. For example, I didn't see the need of a love story and I wasn't completely satisfied by the ending. As I said in my review, I'm confused, I don't know what to think about this novel...

  5. Ciao Stefania, dopo essere "rimbalzata" qui da Indian words (e aver sfogliato il tuo interessantissimo blog), mi sento di spezzare una lancia in favore del libro di Hamid. Personalmente, ma è solo il mio punto di vista, non l'ho letto come una metafora (anche se, è vero, i nomi dei protagonisti la suggeriscono abbastanza apertamente - l'avevo notato per Changez ma, lo confesso, non per Am-Erica). La scrittura di Hamid è riuscita a coinvolgermi emotivamente nel percorso interiore del personaggio, nella sua evoluzione da giovane rampante di Wall Street, sempre inconsciamente desideroso di riscattare con le sue performance lavorative un oscuro senso d'inferiorità, a persona più consapevole delle sue radici e dei suoi legami affettivi con il Pakistan, specie dopo la svolta epocale dell'11 settembre, ed il cambio di atteggiamento degli americani (questa parte, sì, l'ho trovata un po' stereotipata in effetti, però devo dirti che incontrando amici americani poco dopo quell'evento, la descrizione non è così lontana dalla realtà...). La storia con Erica non mi è dispiaciuta, anche se, concordo, ha parti poco convincenti. Però Erica che vive Changez come un giovane gentiluomo responsabile, protettivo e sollecito, così diverso dai coetanei americani, forse proprio a causa delle sue origini pakistane, l'ho trovato invece un tratto non scontato, e per certi aspetti commovente ...scusa se ho scritto in italiano, l'inglese lo leggo ma non lo scrivo bene. Complimenti per il tuo blog!

  6. Grazie del comment Anto, adesso ci sarebbe anche da vedere il film che è uscito da poco. A me non sembra che il percorso di Changez sia un percorso in positivo come lo descrivi tu. Caspita però, ne è passato di tempo da quando ho recensito questo libro!

  7. Eh il film l'ho visto, si discosta parecchio dal libro. A me è piaciuto, ma molti amici che avevano letto il libro sono rimasti spiazzati..Riguardo al libro,.forse non mi sono espressa bene; il percorso di Changez io l'ho letto come un cambiamento, non ci ho visto un positivo o un negativo, semplicemente mi pare l'autore abbia seguito passo passo un'evoluzione (che non implica positività) da una condizione ad un'altra. Un cambio di prospettiva esistenziale di Changez, ecco, Questo ovviamente IMHO. Mi riservo di leggere con calma molte altre tue recensioni, e ancora complimenti per il blog, a presto rileggerti! PS in effetti il libro io l'ho letto solo l'anno scorso, da qui il mio ritardo nel parlarne...