Thursday, April 22, 2010

#19: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist takes an interesting approach to storytelling. The narrator is a Pakistani man sitting in a Lahore cafe, and from the outset it becomes clear that the narrative will move and flow only at his bidding. Ostensibly, his audience is the "uneasy American stranger" seated across from him, who manages to jump or look alarmed at virtually everything, but his book-long monologue makes it abundantly clear that the reader is the host's true target.

"Do not be frightened by my beard," the Pakistani, whose name is Changez, reassures his guest. "I am a lover of America." And with that, Changez launches into an account of his life and times in the United States, beginning with his undergraduate years at Princeton University and soon followed by his interview and eventual employment at a valuation firm, Underwood Samson. Inevitably, a romantic entanglement materializes, as Changez's new employer competes for his attention against Erica, the type of girl who wore "a short T-shirt bearing the image of Chairman Mao" as if it had personal meaning.

Changez finds himself gaining headway into American corporate culture; meanwhile, his relationship with Erica runs a parallel course. The only hitch, it seems, is her inability to release herself from the memory of her old boyfriend, Chris, who had died of cancer the year before she met Changez. On some level the latter man feels vulnerable, threatened even, at his seemingly disadvantageous position, but with a sense of irony at feeling jealous of a dead man.

Then, as often happens in recent literature, came September 11. Changez, on assignment in Manila for Underwood Samson, was in his hotel room preparing to return to the States when he saw the news on television. "I stared as one -- and then the other -- of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled." Changez's instinctual pleasure was not, he assures his listener, in response to the violent act itself but as an acknowledgment of what it symbolized, "the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees." Fearing what such a reaction might provoke in his colleagues, he wisely keeps this sentiment to himself.

As the story progresses, however, the disparity between Changez's corporate breeding and his national and cultural identity grows ever larger. Erica, afflicted with anxiety and depression following the attacks in New York, withdraws for long periods; each time he sees her, she has shrunk to a fraction of the person he had seen the time before. His conflicted relationship with her mirrors his increasingly frayed connection to the United States, as perceived American self-righteousness and machismo soon supersede concerns for maintaining some semblance of the existing (and precarious) global order, a development that holds dubious implications for Changez's native Pakistan. "It will perhaps be odd for you," he tells his guest, "...to imagine residing within commuting distance of a million or so hostile troops who could, at any moment, attempt a full-scale invasion."

Towards the end of his story, Changez describes an emotional farewell with Erica, which immediately follows her verbal longing for her deceased lover. As Changez prepares to leave her, "she gave me a hug and afterwards she stood there, looking at me. But he is dead, I wanted to shout!" To Changez, the statement is an equally appropriate analysis of American innocence. Nostalgia for a mystic past is hardly empathetic when one exerts such overwhelming control over the present. "I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward," Changez muses. Following September 11, "for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back." His attempts to ingratiate himself into Erica's life met resistance from the same impulse that denied his easy assimilation into American culture.

These sentiments, while hardly original, are easily comprehensible and are expressed in an enjoyable format to boot. Thus it is all the more disappointing when the narrator descends into the occasional, yet dispiriting, cliche. Upon returning to the States from an aborted assignment in Chile, for example, Changez suddenly sees his destination in a new light. "...I was struck by how traditional your empire appeared. Armed sentries manned the check post at which I sought entry...once admitted I hired a charioteer who belonged to a serf class lacking the requisite permissions to abide legally and forced therefore to accept work at lower pay; I myself was a form of indentured servant whose right to remain was dependent upon the continued benevolence of my employer." Melodrama aside, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how these disjointed fragments coalesce with the rest of the narrative.

This is the most egregious of Hamid's errors, an admittedly minor one in the spectrum of literary flaws, but one that, nonetheless, could just as easily have been uttered by Michael Moore as penned by a serious author. Ultimately, Mohsin Hamid is exactly that; now, if only the filmmaker could take a few notes from him.

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